“Plastic is dangerous because it is insidious. Plastic decays slowly.” Scientist Klaus Rhomberg’s pronouncement echoes throughout Plastic Planet. The documentary is less surprising than it is insistent. It’s likely that you already have a vague sense that plastic—in its many forms—is bad for the planet. You’ve seen the images of plastic bags littering beaches or water bottles on city streets, and you’ve heard that disposable diapers take 200 years to break down. What the film makes clearer is how plastic poses more immediate dangers at a molecular level, how chemicals leach into streams and also bloodstreams, how studies of effects are suppressed, and how multinational corporations manage their business.
“I’ve been surrounded by plastic since birth,” says Austrian-German director Werner Boote, whose grandfather worked for a plastics company, and supplied the child with toys that impressed his young friends and neighbors. His grandfather died young, Boote notes, at age 61. And with that, the grandson embarks on a research project: what do plastics do?
He begins by acknowledging the many obvious uses, as well as some less obvious. “We are the children of the age of plastic,” Boote says, and goes on to list and illustrate that plastics—referring to a broad range of synthetic concoctions—are integral to humans’ daily lives, in clothing, containers, and cars, in architecture and furniture and entertainment. The filmmaker’s first stop—at the Linz, Austria offices of Borealis—provides then CEO John Taylor (also the president of PlasticsEurope) a chance to cheerlead. “It’s Lego for grownups,” he smiles, lightweight material that “saves” energy because it can be moved at less expense than older substances like metal. Boote isn’t precisely Michael Mooreish here, but he does let Taylor go on a bit, enough to establish the backdrop for the more dire news he collects later.
This trajectory is hinted at when Boote asks Taylor, “Aren’t plastics more of a burden than a solution to modern society?” The CEO suggests that the problem is not plastics per se, but their disposal. “We need to train people not to just throw plastic bags away,” he submits. It’s a good idea, but the film goes on to suggest that trash is only the most superficial issue. Really, a doctor in a lab coat points out, the health risks of plastics as garbage are negligible compared to what happens when the bags and bottles dissolve, however many decades into a future as yet unknown. Rhomberg adds that plastic components “have the fatal characteristic that they can penetrate the food chain. Especially important is the big substance group of phthalates, because millions of tons are produced each year.” The film goes on to assert some effects of these loose components on human bodies, particularly in a lively sequence, when Boote heads into a supermarket and puts labels on all the plastic containers on shelves, announcing that plastics can cause the following: cancer, autism, brain defects, asthma, arthritis, and obesity, among other ailments. The film doesn’t show any shoppers responding to these labels, or even store staff members chasing Boote away, but the labels do the work they seem designed to do: they make you wonder about what you’re absorbing—by way of the air, through your mouth or fingers.
Boote visits with Beatrice Bortolozzo, daughter of a Venetian factory worker who died, she says, because of incessant exposure to PVC and other toxins and a Chinese factory that makes plastic toys, including an inflated globe that ends up resonating symbolically (especially when Boote hears its discouraging chemical analysis results from environmental analyst Kurt Scheidl, both men backed by a gorgeous Austrian mountain range). The factory declines to show its manufacturing processes, or disclose reports on what goes into its materials.
That said, some plastics consumers seems fine with their lots, as when Boote visits a plastic surgeon’s office and meets personal fitness trainer Robin Tharaldson, who describes her silicon breast implants as “Warm, soft, like my skin, just a part of me.” Boote’s expression is skeptical here, suggesting that Tharaldson might have been drinking some kool-aid.
In fact, Plastic Planet makes the case that toxins enter our bodies rather directly, as components are more or less immediately leached into foods and beverages from their plastic containers. Along with phthalates, the film names bisphenol a (BPA), which can act like estrogen, says Washington University’s Patricia Hunt, who’s been investigating how “very low levels of a chemical might impact a cell.” An animated sequence underlines these potentially alarming “impacts,” with ugly little faces coursing through liquid en route to an exposed throat. Boote asks, “Is plastic our golem? Has our wonderful invention turned against its creator?”
He goes on, “I’m worried the poison is running continuously through my bloodstream.” And you’re worried too. Loosey goosey when it comes to evidence, or even an organized argument, Plastic Planet achieves that much.