The Story of Plastic: New Documentary Explores Plastic's Firm Grip Over Us All
New documentary, The Story of Plastic, explores our relationship with the addictive, ever-lasting scourge of modern living.
Chris Newbould talks to Delphine Levi Alvares, of the Break Free From Plastic movement, about her role in the film.
Mon 27 Apr 2020
It seems like an eternity since the greatest existential threat facing humanity was impending environmental catastrophe.
Since the coronavirus began its rapid spread across the globe every news channel, topical conversation and individual facet of our daily lives has been dominated by the unseen viral threat.
The environment, of course, has not gone away. In fact, in a rare piece of good news coming from the corona-stricken world, many polluted cities are reporting improved air quality as populations live under lockdown and cars come off the streets.
A further piece of unexpected good news for the environment comes from Delphine Levi Alvares, European coordinator of the Break Free from Plastic movement, who notes that, despite populations being trapped at home with little to do but eat, there is evidence emerging that the use of plastic – the scourge of the oceans and many developing world landfill sites – is actually reducing in some ways during the crisis.
“We know that there’s a big trend in many, many countries of people switching to reusable sanitary items, like nappies,” Alvares explains.
“I know also that in many countries people have switched to using their reusable bag because it is the only way for them to prove that they are going shopping, and in a context where borders are closing, we do realise the importance to have short loops and local food production, and what that allows us to do is to get rid of most of the packaging.”
Alvares is a key figure in Deia Schlosberg’s documentary The Story of Plastic which had its global premiere across the 220 countries where Discovery Channel broadcasts to on Earth Day (April 22).
As the name implies, it explores humanity’s relationship with plastic from its invention in the mid-20th century to its current role as environmental public enemy number one.
Although the activist has found some positives for plastic in the current crisis, she’s in no doubt that there’s still la long way to go to prevent the world from simply drowning in plastic waste.
Even while households may be producing less plastic during lockdown, the need for huge amounts of plastic personal protection equipment (PPE) is pushing production up, and Alvares’ own personal bugbear – the single serve sachet, which is still prevalent in many developing markets, seems unlikely to be affected by global pandemics.
"Plastic comes from resources that need hundreds of millions of years to get formed by nature, and once it’s produced, it’s going to stay in nature for centuries"
In the documentary, Alvares is vocal in her criticism of pharmaceutical companies who push the individual skincare or haircare sachet as their prime product in many markets.
I ask why this method of distribution, which I must admit I haven’t seen outside of a 1970s swimming pool vending machine, is so attractive for companies in the global south.
“In a lot of emerging economies people are paid per day, so they purchase what they need per day,” she explains.
“In this context, big companies are actually making a lot of profit because what people pay for is mostly the packaging - if you put the same quantity in a bottle, it actually costs a lot less. They are basically exploiting the fact that people can’t afford to buy a big bottle, even though there are systems that they could be using to provide the product to the customer without this packaging, like dispensers with like single servings.”
There’s a further sinister reason for the prevalence of plastic sachets in this market – advertising. Every shampoo sachet on the floor – and there are many judging by the footage we see on screen – is a free ad for brand x.
“The more [customers] get used to the brand, the colours, the font, the more they get accustomed to this visual, the easier it’s going to be for them to go towards your product in the store. So, having those sachets everywhere in the stores and on the floor is actually very, very profitable,” Alvarez explains.
"In other words, we need to make more plastic in order to recycle old plastic"
Corporations, of course, would point to their increased use of recyclable plastics as defence, but it simply doesn’t hold up.
As the documentary reveals, and Alvares further emphasises in our conversation, much of the plastic already in the ecosystem is simply unrecyclable, and even that which can be recycled needs virgin plastic added to be successfully reused.
In other words, we need to make more plastic in order to recycle old plastic.
“Plastic comes from resources that need hundreds of millions of years to get formed by nature, and once it’s produced, it’s going to stay in nature for centuries,” she says.
“It’s about using it where it makes the most sense, and certainly not for single-use applications especially when we have safe and affordable reasonable alternatives for them.”
Returning to the topic du jour of coronavirus, Alvares has one further positive that she hopes humanity can take from a dire situation: “With this pandemic the world leaders have proven that they can take drastic measures when it comes to saving people’s lives,” she says.
“My wish would be that they profoundly realise that we are one and we are one with our environment. And that they up their game to save our planet the same way they have done it for saving people’s lives.”
Find The Story of Plastic on The Discovery Channel.