World Environment Day: Discovery Channel highlights the urgency of corporate exploitation in The Story Of Plastic

On the occasion of World Environment Day, Discovery Channel will air The Story Of Plastic at 4:30 pm IST. Discovery Plus will air it on the same day.

Devki Nehra June 05, 2020 19:56:28 IST
World Environment Day: Discovery Channel highlights the urgency of corporate exploitation in The Story Of Plastic

Look around you…the packet of spicy Kurkure you just demolished, what’s it made of? Plastic. The take-out container you just chucked in your trash can, what’s that made of? Plastic. The fresh pack of incense sticks my father just cracked open for his daily pooja. That’s plastic too. This non-perishable, non-biodegradable product has become an integral part of our lives; marketed time after time as something practical, durable and a cheap alternative (easy on our and the producer’s pockets) to glass or even aluminium.

But do we recognise the long-term ramifications of this extensive dependence on plastic, which has been hailed as a revolutionary invention? Do we know who to blame, and how this can problem be controlled, if not completely eliminated?

“The future of plastics is in the trash can,” Lloyd Stouffer, editor of the trade journal Modern Plastics, had once declared at a Society of Plastics Industry conference back in 1956. His comment, widely criticised at the time, was prophetic.

World Environment Day Discovery Channel highlights the urgency of corporate exploitation in The Story Of Plastic

A still from The Story of Plastic

The Story of Plastic opens with the camera panning over a water body littered with abandoned limp and dirty waste, a sight so common in our country. While the media usually depicts the problem of plastic waste as a hazard to marine life or flashes pictures of massive landfills in different countries, there's rarely any exploration of the problem's root cause. The Story of Plastic sets out to do just that.

The documentary, shot across North America, Asia and Europe, brings to the fore systemic problems that have led to this menace. There is the corporate giants’ refusal to see the acknowledge in their ways, driven blindly by profit without acknowledging the great environmental damage their business practices inflict. There is also the failure in governance and one-dimensional policy making.

Despite the constant debate on climate change, petrochemical companies have upped their fossil fuel productions, excitedly terming it as "progress". They have engaged in tokenistic gestures like financing mass beach clean-ups (where does this collected trash go?). Besides, these corporations' statements about sustainability and green practices have come decades after the damage was already done.

The documentary uncovers the inefficacy of recycling, proclaimed to be a green and sustainable way of waste disposal. It was in 1990 when packaging companies pushed municipal-funded recycling campaigns across the US, but resisted any revisions to their manufacturing system. In actuality, 32 percent of plastic ends up as litter, 40 percent in landfills, and only 2 percent is completely recycled to something as useful as the original product.

By steering clear of all responsibility and citing bad waste management practices, notes Tiza Mafria of the Plastic Bag Diet Movement in Indonesia, corporations try to distract consumers from the fact that single-use plastic by-products can never be completely erased.

“It’s not meant to be managed,” she says. Single-use plastics like straws, packaging, bottles, plastic bags — meant for immediate use-and-throw — are permanent residents of this planet, and will remain so till generations to come. The doc then goes to the Ghazipur landfill on the outskirts of Delhi, spread across almost 70 acres. An owner of a nearby dairy farm says living near the landfill has decreased the life expectancy of the residents by almost 15 years.

It is a misconception that the blame lies solely in consumption habits for the growing crisis of plastic pollution. Zoe Carpenter, a journalist with US-based weekly magazine The Nation, believes that this line of reasoning is reductive and eliminates any chances of holding those profiting accountable. Froilan Grate of Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives, Philippines adds that reducing personal use barely makes a dent in the grand scheme of things.

The Story of Plastic goes on to magnify the blatant disregard for human life, and how the burden of the West’s trash (in kilotonnes!!!) is being borne by countries like China, India, Thailand, Philippines, and Vietnam. Rampant poverty in these nations only leads to exploitation of workers, who are willing to work at a very low cost. In India, its women from marginalised communities routinely sift through this imported scrap at disposal facilities. It is then either dumped in water bodies or incinerated, emitting unimaginable amount of toxics, raising the chances of people in close proximity to develop respiratory issues, skin diseases, infertility and even cancer. It was only in January 2018 that China enacted its National Sword Policy, banning the import of waste. Hopefully, other countries will also follow suit.

Presenting some of these horrifying facts, The Story of Plastic will definitely make us look inward, and question our habits. The documentary states there will be more investment in the plastic industry between 2020 and 2025, and this business is driven by the supply, and not the demand. "I think we should ban together and have a serious discussion on a global scale because these companies are operating on a global scale," says Mafria.

Discovery Channel and Discovery Channel HD will air The Story of Plastic today at 4:30 pm IST on 5 June, on the occasion of World Environment Day. Discovery Plus will stream the documentary on the same day.

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