When Americans discuss our dependence on crude oil, we're usually referring to the kind that eventually winds up in our gas tanks. Werner Boote's globetrotting documentary argues that there's another major use for crude oil that is slowly damaging our environment and us. Plastic currently accounts for 4% of all crude oil use. Products made from plastic have become so ubiquitous that we cannot live without them nor, as Werner goes to great lengths to prove, can we ignore the health problems associated with them. Boote lays out a compelling case that plastic has serious health and environmental downsides that corporations at both ends of the production process would prefer you not know. Thankfully though, Plastic Planet is not an angry, agitprop work. This is a pleasingly comprehensive activist documentary so convincing you'll find yourself looking askance at everything in your life made from plastic. Ironically, the doc will do best on DVD, which is made of plastic, and Netflix, which requires a plastic remote control to operate.
Boote begins by laying out the big picture. He presents facts we half-remember from print articles and network news programs. But this time his gently forceful presence makes them stick. Plastic can take upwards of 200 years to completely decompose, meaning 200 years worth of opportunities for discarded items to release harmful materials into the food chain. It also means that gargantuan mounds of fetid shopping bags and Tupperware are piling up in garbage dumps worldwide. Even the ocean is coated with a top layer of plastic. It takes only minutes for Boote to accumulate a jarful of plastic pieces from a trawler skimming the tiniest patch of the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and Hawaii. These broad strokes are conveyed with artful visuals that include lonely rag pickers in India sifting through garbage and fast-motion families unloading every plastic product from their plastic-dependant homes.
When Boote starts the real digging, the surprises come and the doc takes off. Theo Colborn from the World Wildlife Fund explains that food and drink manufacturers don't actually produce the plastic from which their containers are made. They're purchased from outside chemical companies trying to convince, for instance, Aquafina bottled water that their plastic won't discolor, change the taste of the water or leach over time. However, each plastic manufacturer uses a proprietary method to create the little pellets that companies use to make their containers, so there's no way for Aquafina to know if one plastic is better than another. Of course, if people were dropping dead from plastic the industry would make a stronger effort to perfect and roll out the bio-plastics that Boote presents as a viable alternative. Unfortunately, negative effects develop over long periods of time giving plastic manufacturers little incentive to tackle the problem.
To approach said problem from all sides, Boote puts his luggage where his mouth is. His investigation takes him to a dozen countries with only his visit to a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon a disappointment since it merely regurgitates California lifestyle clichés. Otherwise, you can't knock Boote for laziness. In Shanghai, he visits the maker of inflatable plastic globes. His Chinese tour guide shows him how the globes are designed. She won't divulge anything about the plastic they're made from. Later, Boote sits atop the Dachstein glacier in Austria with an environmental analyst convinced that the inflatable globes contain toxic chemicals. Indeed, toxicity in plastic is the main villain of Plastic Planet. Early on, Boote visits Venice, where attorney Felice Casson represented a group of cancer-stricken factory workers and discovered that corporations had colluded to hide proof that vapors from the production of PVC, the third most widely used plastic, were carcinogenic. The biggest toxic offender is Bisphenol A (BPA). The EPA claims that all Americans have BPA in their blood. Even a blood test administered to the Vienna-born Boote reveals "measurable levels" of the substance. Scary to be sure, although Boote loses some traction when asserting that the toxin decreases brain function and has an effect on fertility that can last three generations. He may be right in those assertions but it feels above the pay grade of our pudgy host with his face of fair-minded concern.
Plastic Planet makes a hearty case that the dangers Boote spotlights deserve serious attention, especially since corporations only care about consumer safety if they're forced to. It also proves that sometimes the right message needs the right messenger. Boote draws us in by personalizing his efforts. The seeds of his interest in plastic were planted by a grandfather employed by a German plastics company. This industry legacy ingratiates him to John Taylor, president of Plastics Europe. Genial at first, Taylor later stonewalls when Boote attempts to land an ambush interview at a trade show. Such gotcha moments are beneath the director and besides, why risk reminding audiences that Michael Moore did the same thing better in Roger & Me? Still, Boote makes his point. Plastic is light, cheap to transport and difficult to break. It's also ruining the planet. It may not be doing it quickly or with a flamboyance deserving of a Roland Emmerich film, but it's doing it all the same. Boote's strong film will make you look at the floating plastic bag from American Beauty in a new, wholly suspicious way.
Distributor: First Run Features
Director/Screenwriter: Werner Boote
Producer: Thomas Bogner
Running time: 99 min
Release date: January 14 NY