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A documentary that will never let you see plastic the same way again

The Story of Plastic
Where does your recycling really end up?
  • Zoë Schlanger
By Zoë Schlanger

Environment reporter

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

It’s hard to choose which scene in The Story of Plastic most sent a chill down my spine, so startling is the hour and a half-long documentary. But if forced, I’d say it’s the drone footage from Indonesia. Piles of plastic blanket the landscape, stretching unfathomable distances. As the drone camera zooms in, we see small moving shapes amid the glittering piles. It zooms closer: They are people, wading through the piles, picking up plastic trash. 

The Story of Plastic
Plastic waste strewn across East Java.

After China stopped accepting the world’s plastic waste in 2018, more and more of it got diverted to countries like Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. While China had infrastructure in place to sort and recycle the plastic, its new destinations, for the most part, do not—and certainly not enough infrastructure to hand the sudden torrent of plastic coming their way. In the next shot, in Mojokerto, Indonesia, waste pickers stand calves-deep in flimsy plastic packaging waste that licks the walls of people’s houses. We meet Prigi Arisandi, the founder of Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation, a local environment group, who picks up package after package. 

“From US…Texas,” he says, turning over the plastic sleeve from a package of frozen grilled chicken strips. Next he pulls out a plastic sheath that looks like it once held an ice cream bar. “Australia,” he says, reading the fine print on the back. Then a Gain laundry detergent sack, “from Toronto!” and another food sack, this time “Nestle, from UK.” The camera pans to a bag of Bob’s Red Mill organic all-purpose flour. It’s from Oregon. 

The Story of Plastic, directed by Deia Schlosberg and produced by Stiv Wilson, is a relentless pile-on of images and factoids that build on each other, slowly forming the contours of the full scope of havoc wreaked by a single 60-year-old industry. It is the best and clearest guide through the plastic supply chain I’ve seen yet, which also means it’s the best tool to understand the full lifecycle of a material we touch and use every day. 

It’s common knowledge that the vast majority of ocean plastic originates in Asia. But images like this—showing the reality of the global dumping of plastic waste on mostly southeast-Asian countries ill-equipped to handle it—makes one wonder: Where did all that plastic come from in the first place? The answer, clearly, is from countries in the global West, where “recycling” often means exporting the trash and forgetting about the problem.

Back in Berkeley, California, the film turns to the warehouse of the Ecology Center, a recycling depot where the owner, Marin Bourque, an excellent straight-talker, bluntly tells the story of American recycling. He opened the Ecology Center because he thought recycling was a good way to help the environment. But with the proliferation of so many types of plastic packaging, and no way to properly recycle it, he’s not so sure. 

He reflects on the people living in places like we’ve just seen, where much of the plastic he’s collecting will probably end up. He pulls the husk of a TV dinner from a giant bale of recycling. “What do you think somebody is really going to do with this? It’s all different colors. It’s got film, and plastic.” He gestures to other parts of the bale: “It’s got seven different kinds of resin. This stuff, this has been printed on, so it’s got ink in the plastic. What are you really gonna make with it?”

In the ad hoc, informal recycling happening in places like Mojokerto, he says, recycling pickers have to figure out the difference between every type of resin to have any hope of making a profit off of it. But they all look the same. “So how do they do that? They’ll light it on fire and smell the smoke.”

In another scene, a fisherman from Manila, in the Philippines, tells the camera that only 60% of his regular catch is fish. When he pulls up his net, 40% of the weight dragging it down is plastic. 

The Story of Plastic
Ghazipur Dump, near Delhi, India.

Through the course of the film, we meet a dairy farmer who milks his cows between mountains of plastic at a dump near Delhi, India. Then, a group of young adults in Houston, Texas, who live in the shadow of giant plastic refineries, watching as many of their friends’ young children get diagnosed with leukemia. Between them are clips of TV interviews with oil company and packaging executives, touting the incredible returns they are getting on the plastics sector lately, and how they hope to expand into emerging markets in Africa, where single-use plastic packaging is growing in popularity.

The Story of Plastic
Petrochemical complex in Houston, Texas, where much of US natural gas is refined to make plastic.

The film travels to several countries, interviewing people who live along the plastic supply chain in each location. Between live action scenes, animations by Ruben DeLuna helpfully illustrate statistics. For example, around 14% of plastic is recycled—but only 2% is recycled effectively, a statistic much more easily absorbed in chart-for. And about 40% of all plastic is used for packaging, which often has a useful life of six months, is torn open once, and then thrown away. But there is no away, as this film makes painfully clear. 

From the second the natural gas to make it is extracted, we watch as plastic harms people at every stage in its lifecycle. And then, if it’s lucky enough to be among the roughly 9% of plastic that’s ever been recycled, it can often only be recycled once—coming, at last, to its final resting place, either to be burned into an incinerator that produces air pollution, as we see from a town in India where children have respiratory illnesses, or else it floats forever in the ocean, to be ingested by seabirds and fish.

Right now in Southeast Asia, for example, single-use “sachets” of products like cosmetics, toothpaste, and shampoo are wildly popular, in part because they are cheap. Companies like Unilever sell billions of single-use sachets in developing markets a year. One analysis found that in the Philippines, people buy a staggering 163 million sachets per day, or roughly 60 billion per year—enough to fill 130,000 soccer fields.

These sachets are plastic-foil composites, and cannot be recycled. With little to no infrastructure to handle the waste, they easily drift from dump sites to water bodies, where they will break into smaller and smaller pieces, contributing to the other plastic crisis: The microplastics entering our food and water supply.

The documentary is currently making the film festival circuit, and a full list of screenings are on the film’s website. If it makes it to wide release, it seems clear it could have a similar impact as other films of its ilk, like Supersize Me or Food Inc., which elucidated for millions the cogs of an industry that has tacit control over what we eat. In this case, it’s the material that acts as a substrate to our whole lives. 

The Story of Plastic
Fighting the tide of plastic in Manila.

Back in Manila, we see people with shovels standing ankle-deep in the sea, shoveling plastic back into the ocean after a storm surge, all the while the tide is hurling back towards them. Eddies of plastic waste eclipse them with every wave. It’s an apt metaphor for the hardest-to-swallow truth of the plastics crisis: No matter what any individual does, the plastic will keep coming, as long as it’s cheap to make and heavily supported by fossil fuel subsidies. Or, as The Nation journalist Zoë Carpenter says in the film, “It’s like trying to bail out a bathtub with a teaspoon while the tap is on full blast.” 

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