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Scrap that bubble wrap

Vanessa Farquharson, National Post
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Ian

Ian Connacher's documentary presents an interesting solution to the problem of excessive plastic waste: just eat the stuff.

When Toronto filmmaker Ian Connacher realized he was addicted to plastic, he decided to drop everything - including a girlfriend - and travel around the world for two years, confronting his petroleum vice as deeply and intimately as possible.

This meant 220 pounds of camera equipment hauled across 12 countries and more than 400 hours of footage to produce a documentary entirely funded by the 36-year-old himself.

"It was terrifying," he says. "We shot way more than we needed to, all the broadcasters were saying they didn't want the story, that it was too personal or not personal enough - but I knew it would resonate with people because plastic is something we touch every day without even thinking about it."

Indeed, from alarm clocks and toothbrushes to shampoo bottles and razors, most of the developed world relies on this material just to get out of bed and showered in the morning. The problem, explains Connacher, is that nobody stops to wonder where all this plastic came from and what happens when we throw it out (don't bother answering, "It gets recycled," either, because on average only 5% of it does).

To answer the question about disposal, Connacher visits such disturbing places as the oceanic garbage patch that sits within the swirling North Pacific Gyre where there is currently more plastic than plankton per square mile. He also goes on a tour of a highly toxic dump in India, located in a village where the average lifespan is 30 years old.

"That was horrible," says the filmmaker. "I shot a lot of that myself because my partner refused to go up the mountain of garbage. I showered about ten times that night, and cried as well. Our host, the guy who took us there, had polio and was hobbling around the entire time. It was just awful."

Although there are many depressing sights in Addicted to Plastic, as well as even more depressing statistics, it's not all doom and gloom. Connacher spends the latter half of the film introducing audiences to innovators, volunteers and artists who are tackling the plastic problem by figuring out how to extend the material's lifespan, "upcycling" instead of recycling it by, say, transforming used plastic bags into designer handbags.

"It was those individuals who were most inspiring to me," he says. "There are so many people out there doing amazing things and that kept me going more than anything.

"Seeing a guy eat his own plastic was pretty cool, too," he adds, referring to the inventor of an all-natural, biodegradable and edible form of packaging.

Including elements of optimism and positivity in the film was especially important to Connacher, who found himself growing weary of all the green documentaries that focused solely on dire predictions and misanthropic recriminations.

"If you don't offer people some relevant solutions, what are they going to do?" he says. "There's such a stigma around this environmental genre, you know, with it being preachy and whatnot, and in some cases that's true. So humour was a big thing for me, to bring levity and humanity to it. The narrator isn't the voice of God telling you how bad you are, it's just me saying, hey, we're all in this together."

Connacher never sets out to demonize plastic or the petroleum industry, either; instead, he simply suggests we try to change the way we use - and misuse - this resource.

Ultimately, it comes down to manufacturers, consumers and governments across the globe to take responsibility: Companies must begin reevaluating the materials they use, the products they sell and how they market them; the public has to start questioning just how necessary bubble wrap and plastic stir-sticks are to their lives; and politicians need to look at policies and regulations from a long-term, sustainable point of view.

Plastic may seem like only a small component of a larger problem," says Connacher, "but it's symbolic of our inaction right now. I mean, if we can't tackle plastic, how can we tackle air, or water, or climate change as a whole?

"I'm just hopeful that once people learn about this problem, things will start to happen," he adds. "The least I can do is get the debate started."

Addicted to Plastic screens as part of the Planet in Focus Film Festival this Friday at 7 p.m. at The Royal theatre in Toronto. See planetinfocus.org and crypticmoth.com for more info…
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