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'Plastic People' Review: How Plastic Is Literally Invading Us All

“Plastic People” is one of those essential state-of-our-world documentaries. If and when it gets a release (it premiered this week at SXSW), I urge you to see it, to ponder its message, to consider what it’s saying about how microplastics — plastic particles that are less than 5mm in length, though the key ones may be microscopic — have invaded our food, our water, our air, and, quite specifically, our bodies.

For decades, it’s been a trope of environmental filmmaking to showcase the ugliness of landfills, and to ask where all the plastic we throw out is ultimately going to go. “Plastic People” has some of that. Yet its portrait of what plastic is doing to us is even more distressingly advanced. Yes, plastic is hell on the environment (no small thing), but the thrust of the film’s message is that it’s also toxifying us from within. It has been documented that the plastic particles we inhale, or imbibe, can foment diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, and the film presents powerful evidence that it’s a major contributor to rising infertility levels. Plastic disrupts our hormones, and in one queasy section the film shows us a placenta with plastic particles in it. In its way, “Plastic People” is a horror movie. It could have been called “Attack of the Killer Polymers.”

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Do I think it’s alarmist? No. If anything, during its last half hour (the film runs 80 minutes), it gets a little hippie-dippy utopian in advocating for a post-plastic world. “We became the first plastic-free community in North America,” says a resident of Bayfield, Canada, as teenagers hand out reusable produce bags and a take-out restaurant owner serves his brussel-sprout tacos in a plastic-free fast-food wrapper. “We can sort of turn back the clock, one piece at a time,” says one of the film’s talking heads. Maybe, maybe not. The movie has already made the daunting point that plastic is so wound into the fabric of our lives that the notion that we’re going to purge ourselves of it may be a Luddite fantasy.

Directed by Ben Addelman, with Ziya Tong as co-director and interviewer, “Plastic People” offers a fascinating history of plastic, showing us how the stuff gradually took over. It all began, in a way, with ivory — yes, ivory tusks, which were used in the 19th century to make brushes and all kinds of utensils; ivory was a very plastic-like substance. In the early 20th century, products like celluloid could imitate ivory’s hardness. Bakelite was an early automobile-age plastic, and then, in the ’20s and ’30s, we saw the rise of the petrochemical companies, which needed something to do with the waste products from their processing. That become the groundwork for the modern plastics industry.

It’s no coincidence that many of the big plastic companies are branch plants of oil companies. Big Oil and Big Plastic are joined at the hip. The plastic companies we know today — Dow, Mobil, Dupont — had teams of industrial chemists coming up with materials for which there was no immediate need or demand (with the notable exception of nylons, which everyone wanted because they could mimic silk stockings, which were too expensive). The plastic production was then ramped up exponentially during World War II. All of which set the stage for…the plastic ’50s!

The film gives us plenty of cleverly edited archival footage of the Atomic Age, showing us how in the postwar era plastics went into shoes, fabrics (dacron, orlon), appliances, vinyl records, Naugahyde furniture, and cars. When these products began to reach a critical mass in middle-class homes, a new concept was pioneered: disposables! It was a very conscious strategy. And that’s when the plastics industry really took off. At a certain point, you begin to get single-use versions of what had long been durable products, like cups or cigarette lighters. Life magazine did a feature story entitled “Throwaway Living.” Perhaps the best example of how tossing everything away became the new (toxic) normal is our own embrace of disposable water bottles. Did you know that 1.5 billion plastic water bottles are bought every day? That’s the sort of stat-that-gives-you-pause that’s sprinkled throughout a documentary like this one.

A word about the word plastic, which is layered with connotations, none of which (like plastic itself) has ever gone away. First, it was this strange new hardened-chemical product. Then it was a shiny durable miracle. Then, in the ’60s, it became a grand metaphor — for the fake quality of our lives, and for the greedy corporate culture that packaged it. That was the “Plastics” of “The Graduate,” and the introduction of the notion that a middle-class rebel like Dustin Hoffman’s Ben could “reject” the world of plastic. Norman Mailer wrote many eloquent passages about plastic: what it looked and smelled like, what it was doing to our souls and our bodies. Mailer would have watched a movie like “Plastic People” and said, “Yeah, I told you that 60 years ago.”

If Mailer was the cautionary bard of the New Plastic America, the bard of “Plastic People” is Rick Smith, the Canadian environmentalist and author of “Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health.” “Microplastics,” he says in the movie, “are possibly the most serious type of pollutant our society has ever created. These invisible particles have been found on the highest mountains, in the deepest ocean sediments. And now, we’re finding microplastics wherever we look in the human body. And once these tiny particles are in our bodies, they’re oozing their toxic ingredients on a minute-by-minute basis.”

Every molecule of plastic that has ever been created still exists somewhere on earth. It doesn’t disappear. It just goes from being larger to smaller and smaller. The conversion of oil into polymers has helped contribute to global warming, but the oil companies, knowing they’re facing a world that uses less and less fossil fuels, are looking for a way to sustain their profits. So they have a motivation, says Smith, to “increase the plasticization of human life.” That, he says, “is where the oil is going to go.” Oil companies are talking about tripling the production of plastic over the next few decades.

You probably, like me, know some of this already. But one of the great values of a documentary like “Plastic People” is that it takes an issue you think you’ve grasped and colors it in. It takes your scattershot information and fuses it into a fuller vision — of the past, and the future.

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