Plastic Planet

plasticplanet_flat4 stars
Actors: Werner Boote, John Taylor, Peter Lieberzeit
Director: Werner Boote
Studio: First Run Features
DVD release: 12 April 2011
Runtime: 95 minutes (1 disc)
Format: Color, DVD, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
DVD Features: Outtakes; DVD-ROM press kit

At the rate we’re going, we’re all going to need to isolate ourselves from the toxins we’ve dumped into our environment by diving into HazMat bubble suits. We’ll have to invent filters that keep the nano-sized particles of cancer-dealing crap out but, hey, we’ve got the technology for that… and plastics.

On second thought, no: plastics are one of the biggest sources of toxins. Bisphenol A, for instance, is a plasticizer that makes plastic, well, plasticy, and has been a known estrogenic since the 1930s. Estrogenics are those wonderful chemicals that are the secret culprits behind the bitching and moaning of the Iron John crew. Chief among them, Robert Bly has long complained that men have become too feminized, and clearly plastics are to blame, not doting mothers. I mean, look at the amphibians: scientists have been observing them changing sex, from male to female, mid-stream for years, so why not humans, too?

Welcome to Plastic Planet, an award-winning documentary from German director Werner Boote. The making of this film was predicted by another one, years ago. In The Graduate (1967; Mike Nichols), Mr. McGuire, a well-meaning capitalist, tells Benjamin, a recent college graduate searching for signs of meaning in the universe, “just one word: plastics.” Like Horace Greely’s West, plastics were once both the frontier and the future. Now, they’re the death knell of entire species.

On the one hand, things like plastic water bottles are semi-permanent fixtures. It’s estimated that your typical Dasani (owned by Coke; water source: the tap – that’s what “municipal source” means in the blue gold business) water bottle won’t decompose for 500 years. On the other, scratching plastic, or washing it in hot water with strong detergent, causes the plasticizers to leech out and contaminate all in their path. Your baby’s formula, for instance. Indeed, several countries have banned Bisphenol A from baby bottles, and Canada in 2010 straight up banned it across the board.

The encroaching ban on Bisphenol A is a sad one for glam rock (no more, “Dude looks like a lady”) but, in the greater scheme of things, is probably a good thing.

Werner Boote has made a mostly wonderful film about the ubiquity and dangers of plastics. Shooting all over the world (on the African continent, in Asia, as well as in Europe and the U.S.), he asks people to take everything plastic out of their home and set it up outside. It’s a shocking thing to see: a shanty in some poor village disgorges many cubic feet of plastic. A suburban U.S. home contains tons of the stuff. In each case, the homeowners are shocked: We didn’t know we had so much plastic. We don’t want this much plastic. We’re going to have to learn to live without plastic.

Good luck with that: plastics are everywhere and they’re not going away. And the companies that make them refuse to divulge the chemicals that go into them, nor are they willing to concede that there might just be a smidge of toxicity in that rattle your child is shoving in her mouth.

Clearly following in the footsteps of Michael Moore, Boote stalks and tries to confront a plastic manufacturing company’s CEO with a suitcase full of scientific papers on the nastiness of plastic. The CEO gives him the brush off. Capitalism is once again in full denial mode. Like tobacco companies hiding the carcinogenic truth about cigarettes, so too the plastic manufacturers. Meanwhile our seas are filling with particles of plastic in sizes to clog the gills, pores and bloodstreams of all comers.

It’s not clear to me that Boote’s film really does any good. He’s too easy to brush off as biased. He starts the film autobiographically, explaining that his grandfather was an important plastics manufacturer. Throughout the film he delivers sarcastic jabs at that grandparent. So is he exorcising family devils or really investigating the state of the toxic planet? The latter, of course, but the charge of bias isn’t helped by the “first-person shooter” style of the film. Like Moore, Boote narrates his own story and appears in many of the shots. He’s not nearly as funny as Moore but comes across just as pompous. There are a few animated scenes that fail nearly completely: they are meant to illustrate the biology underlying Bisphenol A’s penetration of an organism, but they’re just goofy and ineffective.

On the plus side, Boote interviews a couple of the leading scientists investigating the effects of Bisphenol A, including Patricia Hunt, a biologist who works at Washington State University. So the science is well represented but, in the end, I fear Boote is preaching to the choir. His film won an environmental award in his home country of Germany, and has received accolades around the world. But nothing seems to scratch the surface of the manufacturers’ plastic hides. What will it take for them to start leeching the truth?

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