Plastic Planet (Docu)

By Jeff Farr

You may be afraid to touch a water bottle after you see “Plastic Planet,” much less drink from one. Maybe that is an exaggeration, but you will most certainly view water bottle in a different light, as you will all the plastic that surrounds you in daily life.

As director Werner Boote sets out to prove in his documentary, plastic is not only everywhere, it is also constantly releasing harmful chemicals as it disintegrates—chemicals that can cause cancer and other health problems. At this point, there probably is no person who does not have detectable chemicals directly coming from plastic in his/her bloodstream.

This is a snappy feature in the Michael Moore style, international in scope and devastating in its conclusions. But there is only the faintest trace of any call to action in “Plastic Planet.” Boote leaves us mostly with feeling screwed by the corporations and with no options when it comes to reversing the damage.

The bad guy here is, of course, the billion-dollar plastic industry. Boote does his best to gain access to how plastic is actually produced and to get corporate officials on camera talking about the downside to such a pervasive reliance. The many doors slammed in his face suggest that there could be a few things the plastic industry does not really want us to know.

One of the best points Boote makes in “Plastic Planet” is that, while many laws are in place to inform us of the ingredients of our food products, no such regulations are in place to tell us about the makeup of plastic.  As a result, while we may have a general idea of what we are eating, we have no idea what chemicals the food has been exposed to through the plastic packaging in which it has traveled to us.

Cleverly, Boote has one of those inflatable globe balls, this one made in China, analyzed for its chemical content. It turns out to be quite the toxic globe, an apt symbol for the toxicity of our world today.

Boote inserts his personality at almost every turn along this journey. While he is not as overbearing as Moore can be—this director has a drier sense of humor and subtler European approach—he resorts to some Moore-like stunts late in the film that are more distracting than illuminating.

The director has a personal stake in plastic because his grandfather was a pioneer of the industry, showering his grandson with plastic toys that inspired a lifelong obsession with it. Boote’s love-hate relationship with plastic gives the film an interesting tension at points, but the filmmaker probably could have made more of this.

Some of Boote’s writing in “Plastic Planet” is winningly deadpan. “I see pipes—nothing but pipes,” goes one voiceover as Boote unsuccessfully tries to get inside a production plant. “I’m worried that poison is running continually through my bloodstream,” he announces later, speaking for both himself and his audience. “Plastic is a complete cycle,” he concludes near the end of the film.

Boote employs many scare tactics. The overarching point, made fairly relentlessly, is that we are all blockaded by unknown, potentially fatal chemicals and have no way out of this predicament. What we have been taking for granted is secretly trying to destroy us. We should be scared.

The film would have been stronger if Boote gave us some ideas of ways to fight back? For instance, is there no organized people’s movement for regulation of plastic production?

Another missed opportunity in “Plastic Planet” is how Boote neglects to introduce any positives of plastic—the other side of the coin—to make his own argument more nuanced and balanced. Surely, plastic has also improved our lives, even saved many lives, and in notable ways protected our natural resources from being further depleted.

Doesn’t plastic furniture, for instance, mean that fewer trees get cut down for the traditional modes of furniture production? Boote could have gone deeper to look at larger social problems, such as overpopulation, that guarantee our dependency on plastic into the future. He could have exposed more of the global plastic economy—how does it work, how could it possibly change?

The future of plastic does get touched on briefly and hilariously, when PlasticsEurope sends an envoy to Boote’s house to try to set the director straight. Futurologist Ray Hammond, representing the industry, gives Boote a memorably zany mini-lecture on the “smart plastic” to come: “It’s going to know when food has gone bad. It’s going to know where it is in the world at all times. It’s going to become self-healing so it can be used in things like spacecraft, where it would automatically repair itself if damaged. It’s going to be capable of sending out signals that change its own shape….”

When Boote gently questions his visitor about the hazards related to plastic, Hammond tells him in earnest to trust the European Food Safety Authority, which apparently cleared plastic in 2007. Few viewers are likely to be convinced that greater trust will protect us in any way from our old friend and new nemesis, plastic.

Credits

A First Run Features release.

Directed and written by Werner Boote.

Producers, Thomas Bogner, Daniel Zuta.

Cinematography, Thomas Kirschner.

Editors, Ilana Goldschmidt, Cordula Werner, Tom Pohanka.

Music, The Orb.

Running time: 99 minutes.