Bag It

There’s a really simple question posed by the film narrated by Jeb Berrier: what’s the consequence of all the plastics we use today? He focuses on a now classic single-use item, the plastic bag, which didn’t even exist in supermarkets prior to the 1970s. Now these bags are ubiquitous—including all those places we wished they weren’t (one interviewee jokes that the flower of New York City is a plastic bag caught in a tree). The main problem with plastic bags is that they require a non-renewable resource, which the narrator would prefer we used some other way (he doesn’t call for ceasing to use all fossil fuels).

Many places throughout the world have begun banning the use of plastic bags, for a variety of reasons ranging from ecological concerns to how ugly displaced bags make the environment around us. Ireland is one country that has banned plastic bags and according to random people in Irish pubs (a stellar measure of public opinion, it would seem) these bags are a scourge upon Irish society that people are glad to be rid of. Other places have also attempted such bands, including places in California and, notably, Seattle. There was a ballot initiative that asked whether a fee should be placed on those choosing to use plastics bags. The main chemical lobby (the American Chemistry Council) sunk $1.4 million dollars to oppose a bag tax, while its opponents (a pro-bag tax organization) were only able to raise $62 thousand. Surprisingly, even in a progressive city like Seattle, the ballot initiative fails against industry propaganda.

Bag It has a broader scope that just bags, though. For example, Berrier explores the controversy between tap water and bottled water. In the US, these plastic bottles are also single-use items to be thrown away (or recycled if they’re lucky), while in Germany they are washed and reused numerous times. According to the Society of Plastics, even the recycling symbols on bottles make less sense; only plastic #1 and 2 can be recycled—and mainly this means down-cycling (turning the material into a lower form of material), and typically it can only used one more extra time.

If this weren’t ominous enough, things get scarier when considering the impact of plastic on the environment and people’s health. There are a number of giant garbage patches swirling away in the ocean (call gyres). Some have claimed these are not terribly serious or large, but all evidence points to a truly humongous patch of garbage floating in the upper-North Pacific Ocean. One in the Pacific Ocean is estimated to be twice as wide as Texas. Fish are apparently gullible enough to think that most anything floating in water is worthy of eating; thus, fish accidentally ingest small fragments of plastics. Albatross being studied by scientists have discovered that mothers are bringing plastics to their chicks to eat. Then, as shown when an albatross died, scientists discovered in its carcass dozens of pieces of plastic, including an incredibly number of plastic bottle caps. It’s these kinds of discoveries that likely made eco-warriors and direct actionists on the Sea Shepard like Captain Watson ask: “will we survive” ourselves?

Health-wise, numerous chemicals are found within plastic products that are thought to have negative effects, including BPAs, which serve as endocrine disrupters. Consequences of BPA include hormonal fluctuations, especially amongst children. Phylates (which includes PVC) are another chemical of concern. Just by being around these chemicals and consuming food and drink that is stored in plastics can lead to chemicals entering our bodies. Famous actor and activist Peter Coyote is featured in Bag It, and he describes how he paid for a professional measurement of the chemicals in his body. Narrator Berrier does the same—wisely in a pre- and post-test fashion. He finds that a normal American routine sharply increased the chemical compounds in his body—many of which are rather dangerous.

There are a few shortcomings to the film to keep in mind. First, there is a strange, liberal belief that petroleum simply needs to be used more wisely and judiciously, and that “we” are the government which means that anyone can participate to create positive change. Surely, lobbying matters, but it’s a bit of hyperbole (or a pipe-dream) to claim that US residents are the government. Then, one of the strongest weaknesses of Bag It is that the narrator has styled himself in the mold of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, with all the annoying ego that this suggests. It’s nice to see that he and his wife are about to have a baby, but multiple minutes during the end of the film shows the live birth—and its unclear for what reason. Berrier is at his best insightful, often silly, and occasionally offensive. At one point he purchases some groceries at a supermarket. He doesn’t want a plastic bag so he holds his food in his hands as he leaves; but, then, for no explicable reason (except to pretend to he is funny), he cracks a misogynist joke that he “likes his lettuce loose, like his ladies”. These attempts to appear witty is the narrator’s (and ultimate the entire movie’s) downfall. Berrier is a big dork, almost to the point that his groaning sense of “humor” gets in the way of what is otherwise a compelling, intelligent, and well-made film. The documentary ends with a number of practical solutions for how to reduce the amount of plastic used in society.

Topics: environmental, waste, consumerism

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