plastic pollution

Plastic People: New Documentaries Expose ‘Horror Movie’ Reality of Plastic Pollution

by John-Michael Dumais | Apr 4, 2024

Two recent groundbreaking documentaries — “We’re All Plastic People Now” and “Plastic People: The Hidden Crisis of Microplastics” — expose the pervasive presence of plastic pollution in the environment and how it might affect human health.

The films, featured at the Santa Fe Film Festival and SXSW respectively, include expert interviews, personal stories and scientific research to underscore the urgency of the plastic pollution crisis.

Rory Fielding, director of the Emmy Award-winning “We’re All Plastic People Now,” tested four generations of his own family’s blood for plastic-derived chemicals.

“Plastic People” co-director Ziya Tong investigated the hidden world of microplastics and their effects on the human body.

Variety called “Plastic People” “one of those essential state-of-our-world documentaries” that offers “a fascinating history of plastic, showing us how the stuff gradually took over” — but also described it as a “horror movie [that] could have been called ‘Attack of the Killer Polymers.’”

‘Plastic is the end of the future’

Plastic pollution has become ubiquitous, with plastic particles found in every corner of the globe.

“It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in the food. It’s in all of our bodies,” according to Rolf Halden, Ph.D., an environmental engineer from Arizona State University, who appears in “We’re All Plastic People Now.”

The documentary reveals the discovery of microplastics in human placentas, as reported by Italian researcher Dr. Antonio Ragusa, who warned, “For humanity, plastic is the end of the future.”

Similarly, “Plastic People” explores the hidden world of microplastics, tiny particles that researchers have found in human organs, blood and brain tissue.

The film’s synopsis notes that “almost every bit of plastic ever made breaks down into ‘microplastics’” which become “a permanent part of the environment.”

A featured expert in the film, Rick Smith, Ph.D., co-author of “Slow Death By Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things,” said, “It turns out that plastic is actually inside of us. It’s in our kids.”

Tong, a science journalist, tested snow in her backyard and found plastic fragments, prompting her to tell her children not to catch snowflakes.

According to “Plastic People,” plastic is like “the embodiment of capitalism. It made possible the material world that we live in now. They are the bones, the skin, the connective tissue.”

Plastics-derived chemicals can ‘make things go awry in the human body’

Both documentaries delve into the health risks associated with exposure to plastic-derived chemicals.

In “We’re All Plastic People Now,” Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a pediatrician and director of the New York University Division of Environmental Pediatrics, discussed the impact of endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, which “hack those molecular signals and make things go awry in the human body.”

The film also features the story of Jess Helsley, director of Watershed Restoration for the Wild Salmon Center, who was diagnosed with early-onset colon cancer in her thirties. Helsley participated in a study that found microplastics in the colons of young cancer patients.

“Plastic People” explores the link between plasticizers and various health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and fertility issues. The film highlights the work of leading scientists “finding these particles in our bodies: organs, blood, brain tissue, and even the placentas of new mothers.”

The documentary features an interview with Dr. Pete Myers, chief scientist, founder and board chair of Environmental Health Sciences, who warns, “Plastics can contribute to healthcare in some miraculous ways, but plastics also can cause health problems, pretty severe health problems like death.”

Infertility, lower testosterone levels and risks to babies

“We’re All Plastic People Now” explores the impact of plastic-derived chemicals on fertility and testosterone levels.

Shanna Swan, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai Hospital, discussed “phthalate syndrome,” which describes how male genitals are altered by maternal exposure to phthalates, a common class of plasticizers.

Swan explained that phthalates lower testosterone levels, leading to “incompletely masculinized” males with “less-descended testicles, a smaller penis [and] shorter anogenital distance.”

The effects of phthalates are not limited to males. Swan said that in females, “If testosterone gets in … when it shouldn’t, or more than should be there, then the female starts producing more male-like genitals.”

This leads to a “decreasing of sex differences,” where “the male becomes less completely a male, the female is less completely a female,” Swan said.

“We’re All Plastic People Now” also reveals the presence of microplastics in human breast milk, with Ragusa’s study being the first to demonstrate this phenomenon.

Stacey Colino, co-author of “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race,” shared her personal experience of using plastic breast pump attachments and bottles, all of which likely exposed her children to plastic-derived chemicals.

John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s oceans campaign, warned that plastic is becoming a part of us “from the very beginning of our lives.”

“When you heat up milk in a plastic bottle, some of the bits of plastic from that bottle are going into the milk that the baby is drinking,” he said.

Oil and gas companies motivated to ‘increase the plasticization of human life’

Both documentaries shed light on the role of major corporations, particularly in the oil and gas industry, in perpetuating the plastic pollution crisis.

“Plastic People” provides a historical overview of the plastics revolution that ramped up significantly after World War II with shoes, fabrics, appliances, furniture and cars before leading to today’s single-use era of disposable water bottles, cups, lighters and plastic bags.

Hocevar, in “We’re All Plastic People Now,” explained that “99% of plastic is made from fossil fuels, oil and gas. It’s a danger to human health every step of the way throughout its entire life cycle.”

The documentary also features the story of Sharon Lavigne, founder of RISE St. James in Louisiana, who successfully fought against the construction of the world’s largest plastics plant in her community, part of an area known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high concentration of industries and chemical facilities.

Christy Leavitt, Oceana’s U.S. Plastics Campaign director, highlighted the industry’s plans to expand plastic production. “They want to … triple the amount” of plastics by 2060, she said.

Ragusa called out specific companies, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestlé for their longtime use of plastics.

Smith, in “Plastic People,” said that facing a world that uses less fossil fuel, oil companies are seeking ways to sustain their profits and therefore have every motivation to “increase the plasticization of human life.”

Every water bottle is a time bomb’

Both documentaries highlight the shortcomings of current recycling efforts in addressing the plastic pollution crisis.

Halden explained that recycling is not a viable solution due to the low recycling rates and the challenges of recycling plastics.

“Every water bottle is a time bomb,” Halden said, noting that only a small fraction of plastics actually make it to recycling centers, and even then, the recycling process is often ineffective.

“[Recycling] doesn’t make business sense right now the way we incentivize the use of fossil fuels to make cheap plastics,” he said.

Leavitt emphasized the need for a shift toward refillable and reusable systems. “Recycling isn’t going to be enough, so some people are turning to that as a solution but it’s not going to be enough to solve plastics.”

‘We need to crank up the level of urgency’

Both documentaries underscore the importance of individual actions, government policies and corporate accountability to address the plastic pollution crisis.

In “Plastic People,” Smith said, “In order to solve [the plastics] problem, we need to crank up the level of urgency on this issue.”

The film featured a resident of Bayfield in Ontario, Canada, claiming to be the first “plastic-free community” in North America.

Experts and activists in “We’re All Plastic People Now” stressed the importance of reducing plastic consumption at the individual level.

Ruth Fielding, the 93-year-old mother of the film’s producer, said, “Every little bit helps. If I don’t take a plastic bag when I go to the grocery store, it helps a little. [But] I’m only one person … I can’t save the world all by myself.”

Leavitt highlighted the necessity for a change in government policies. She said we need national, state and local governments to “require companies to change the way that single-use plastics are produced and used.”

Ragusa also called for political action. “In order to change this, we need politicians that will be able to change.”

“Plastic People” similarly calls for a multi-faceted approach to tackling the plastic pollution problem, with an impact campaign that aims to “execute a solution-based program that will include a number of events, education materials, as well as calls to action.”

The film’s website features a “Take Action” page including several petitions and other resources to help people raise awareness, get involved and make a difference in their communities.

On its Facebook page, “Plastic People” posted an article about “a historic worldwide plastics treaty” being discussed by the U.N. Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution, whose next session takes place in Ottawa from April 23-29.

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