April 29, 2010

Toxins, Waste and Pollutants: Just BAG IT.

This film is a must—add it to your canvas bag of eco tricks!

Bag It, premiering in Telluride this spring at the annual Mountain Film festival, is a feature-length documentary about the infamous plastic bag and its world of cousins.  Narrator and protagonist Jeb Berrier weaves a tale around plastic that is at once candid and overwhelming. His role as a regular guy finding out about the offenses of plastics is the perfect persona to lead the audience through the natural progression of discovery and ultimately, disbelief at these findings. From an analysis of the composition of the plastic bag to a breakdown of the plastic-related chemicals found in cosmetics and toiletries, Bag It covers all aspects of the product that is now affecting our environment and our health.

The statistics presented in Bag It are alarming. Because we are so accustomed to using single-use items for literally a day or even fifteen minutes, we therefore assume that when we do dispose of them , they just “go away.” But, as Jeb aptly inquires, “Where is away?”

Plastic as an environmental pollutant:

We find out that away is anywhere from a treetop in New York City (ever heard the term “the city flower of New York?”) to a circular ocean current called a gyre. Just think about it, all waterways drain into an ocean. What astounded me about these gyres is that they are now full of floating plastic debris. The island of floating plastic in the Pacific Ocean is impossible to measure exactly, but it is somewhere between the size of Texas and that of the United States.

Ok, so we made a mess in the ocean—let’s clean it up, right? Not so easy. Sadly, the plastic debris has been broken down into tiny bits by the sun and is now the consistency of soup. Jeb inspects a sample of the densely polluted water on the deck of a boat at sea. This plastic soup cannot be sifted out, but would have to be vacuumed, basically. Cleaning the North Pacific Gyre would be like vacuuming the US 3 times over. And I can’t help but wonder, then what?

Jeb explores the reason why we should care about the Pacific Gyre. It affects the creatures who make the Pacific their home. It affects the animals above these creatures in the food chain. And it affects the humans who actually care about the well-being of ocean animals.

Gyre researchers inform us in Bag It that there is more plastic than plankton by weight in these areas, and therefore 40 times more plastic than food in some parts of the ocean. Fish are eating plastic rather than plankton and ocean birds eat the fish. One of the most moving parts of the film is an autopsy of a Pacific albatross, whose stomach is all plastic, and no food.

About Jeb as a “real” character:

The camera follows Jeb to places near and far, including the UK and San Francisco. With his casual dialogue, Jeb serves as a big-screen tour guide. He is such a likable, hilarious person (a truly outstanding personality in his local Telluride), that you can’t help but feel yourself get involved with his very personal account. The film transitions from each plastic-wrapped topic with a mini-musing by Jeb, delivered from his kitchen or couch. These little monologues take a personal twist when he discovers his girlfriend Anne is pregnant.

Speaking of which, the story of his home life blends seamlessly with the plastic research he conducts, since the plastic he hones in on is that which is all around us. He muddles his way through sorting out recycling like most people. We’ve all had similar discussions—for example, at my house: “Babe, that’s a ‘7.’” “I know, so it goes in.” “I don’t think so…Well fine, but I’m just not sure.”

Jeb attempts to decipher the ingredients on the back of lotion containers. (Fragrance, phthalates, methyl, ethyl and butyl paraben…oh my!) The news of the pregnancy creates a new urgency to Jeb’s undertaking; suddenly he isn’t just uncovering facts to share, but considering the health of his baby in utero and in his home.

About plastics and our health:

To make plastics hard, or soft and pliable, chemicals such as Bisphenol-A, (BPA) and phthalates are added during manufacturing. Phthalates are also hidden in cosmetics and toiletries under the label “fragrance.” These chemical additives, which are often used in food and drink containers, have been found to leach, and scientists have overwhelming evidence that the chemicals are affecting humans—specifically babies in utero and children. BPA and phthalates are linked to numerous health problems—cancer, diabetes, autism, attention deficit disorder, obesity, infertility—even smaller penis size.

Activist and actor Peter Coyote makes an appearance in Bag It to testify to the the effects of these harsh chemicals. He takes a blood test to determine the levels of various toxins housed in the body as a result of everyday exposure, a test also known as a “Body Burden” test. Even though he lives a clean, healthy lifestyle, his body burden is incredibly high; there are a number of toxic chemicals in his system. “Who gave these sons-of-bitches the right to poison the commons?!,” he cries, referring to the companies that produce items containing BPA, phthalates and other chemicals. These chemicals are also found in personal care products and cosmetics, something people may not know, and are absorbed into our bodies through the skin. And unfortunately, they are still FDA approved.

After discovering the toxic effects of plastic-y substances on the human body, Jeb decides to make a personal sacrifice to see the level of truth in the information. He does a “before and after” test for BPA and phthalates—the “before” showing very low levels of the chemicals (Dr. Colborn commends him). He then subjects himself to 48 hours of exposure to what he knows are typical household culprits: dinners out of plastic containers that he heats in the microwave, fragrant shampoos, conditioners, body washes and lotions, various body and room sprays and even baby products. All I can report on his test is that the results are alarming.

The good news is that these chemicals are short-lived in your body, so it’s never too late to stop ingesting absorbing, and inhaling these chemicals. There are even toxin cleanses out there, if you are so inspired.

More reasons to enjoy Bag It:

Throughout the film Jeb interviews an eco all-star cast of authors, artists, actors, activists and scientists: Chris Jordan, Peter Coyote (E.T. cast member turned activist), Annie Leonard and Dr. Theo Colburn, to name a few. The soundtrack rolls along to the meandering beat of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and bounces Jeb through the film from grocery store to hospital birthing room.

Watching Bag It is something everyone should do—I feel that I need a weekly dose of the documentary to keep me mindful of the issues it presents, especially as they affect our daily routines. I can honestly say it changed the way I shop for and dispose of things. I bring my own baggies and containers for bulk foods and rinse and reuse the containers that do come home with me newly bought. The tiny unrecyclable pieces irk me now: screw caps, peel-offs from milk and juice cartons, lips, rings and tabs—all the pieces that get shipped to Asia for sorting by indigent women and children or end up in the Pacific gyre and eventually in an innocent albatross’s stomach. Jeb points out the peel-off plastic circles under the plastic screw cap that now comes on every carton, and asks, “When did they start doing that?” A great example of the wasteful behavior we’ve adopted for everyday convenience, the screw-top, peel-off circles are completely unnecessary, and he has a point: when did they start doing that?”

I love Bag It for what it accomplishes as a film for everyone. It is very accessible—a simple message delivered through one average man’s candid point of view. Questions are presented and answers offered. The facts are never confusing or “for the environmental guru,” but usually depicted with real footage, simple graphs, or from the mouth of a real person. It isn’t just about bags, but the baggage we as humans now have to deal with as a result of years of over-consumption, waste, and yes—greed.

And, after several weeks of bringing my own bags or taking recycled paper ones when available, I have officially run out of plastic grocery shopping bags! This in itself gives me a cleansing feeling; they were always stuffed everywhere, taking up entire drawers, pantry space and other bags. I used them for picking up after my dog, can liners and, you know “gross things.” Now I just don’t line the can, and I dump the trash directly into the big bin outside. As far as picking up after Daisy—there’s always plenty of old newspaper around to use for her deposits!

Bag It Intro from Suzan Beraza on Vimeo. (Make me bigger by clicking the icon of four arrows in a square!)

Related stories:

Bag It has already won an award, in April at the 9th Annual Ashland Film Festival. Read Jeb’s interview on the award.

The Colorado Association of Ski Towns (CAST) Reusable Bag Challenge:

At the time of filming for Bag It, CAST hosted a contest to see which mountain town could reduce their plastic bag use most significantly. The contest ran for a six-month period, from March-September 2009, and involved 31 Western mountain towns, including Telluride, Aspen and Basalt.

Boulder-based Independent Power Systems (IPS) donated the parts and labor of a photovoltaic system at cost to the winner, while Colorado-based Alpine Bank and PCL Construction donated $10,000 toward its installation. The winner? Basalt, who now receives a new solar system for one of its public schools! The plans are drawn and installation projected for the last week of May 2010.

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