10 March 2011

Movie Review: Bag It--Plastic Philippic

As a warm up for the DC Environmental Film Festival, there was a showing on Capitol Hill of “Bag It” a self described documentary featuring Jed Berrier, an ordinary guy who decides to give up using disposable plastic bags but this simple decision completely changes his life.

Originally, the film was going to concentrate on plastic bags but director Suzan Beraza capitalizes on the serendipity of the pregnancy of Berrier’s girlfriend to humanize the effects of plastic on “the children”.

Naturally, any film associated with an environmental film festival is going to have a green point of view. But to add to entertainment value and demonize the opposition, Bag It followed a technique popularlized by Michael Moore in Roger and Me to intersperse guerilla film making with uncooperative enemies with cultural snippets and pontificating talking heads.

Unfortunately, the evolved mission of how plastics effects will scare first time parents does not fuse comfortably with the snarky guerilla film maker persona. Both of the subplots struck me as being a plastic veneer for the underlying screed against the American Chemistry Council. The ACC’s non-participation in a film philippic about plastic casts them as evil corporate types who care only about profits and not people.

Bag It showed some compelling images which could sway people to their cause. The demonstration of pouring the amount of oil used to produce and distribute a typical water bottle was a cause for pause. The scenes of the Albatross feeding their hatchlings plastic on the Midway Atoll Wildlife Refuge could tug at the heartstrings of nature lovers. The segment showing a demonstration dredging of the North Pacific Gyre (sunken island of garbage) is evocative. And the testing for the amount of absorbed plastics in the body was disturbing.

Unfortunately, the thesis was simple. Consume less. Their mantra: “Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. Our grandparents did not use plastics and lived a similar life and they were happy so why can’t we mold ourselves (sic) to do the same. That left me thinking that this was a political watermelon, green on the outside, red on the inside.

While the Jed Berrier embraces the ordinary guy who is not a tree-hugger label, the truth is that he is an actor from the wealthy ski resort community of Telluride, Colorado. Fair enough. Perhaps he is an ordinary guy amongst the Birkenstock crowd or compared to the Goode Family, but it is misleading to present him as an ordinary American. Alas,  Berrier’s hair-do made him an incarnation of the mercurial yet mindless manager in Dilbert.

The film did include segments from some truly convicted environmental advocates which was supposed to drive home a point, but which also showed their eco-fixation. It was reminiscent of people acting out Andie McDowell’s fears from the film “Sex, Lies and Videotape”. The marine activist who crafted his junk vessel to set sail across the Pacific Ocean out of 13,000 plastic bottles and other discarded refuse was memorable. But the guy who saved all of his disposable plastic for a year in his basement was a special education. And the scenes when Berrier ambushes drive thrus with his request not to have plastic derived products surely was intended to be cute, but shared the supercilious snarl of Michael Moore mocking the little people when driving home his sharp policy points.

Although it is difficult to do in a polemic film but some balance would have augmented their arguments. The film makers proudly showed statistics of ten score of government sponsored studies alleging health concerns from plastics while there was a score of independent studies (sponsored by plastic friendly entities) hat dissented. Of course, the evil corporate types paid to get their results. But the same analysis can discount the government studies too. Big Science gets more money when they find problems, not when their research is inconclusive or that all is copacetic. So there is an incentive to sound the alarms. And as was mentioned during a colloquy with the film maker, the hockey stick data in global warming shows that Garbage In Garbage Out and you can make data say anything that you want.

Bag It was obsessed on getting a gotcha quote from surreptitiously filming communications with the ACC to cast them as evil corporate types that they ignored the benefits of plastics. The drive through hit pieces condemned all types of containers as they can have a plastic lining. So we are supposed to forgo fast food. Oh, that’s right, we should bring our own containers. Funny stuff. And these businesses will welcome lawsuits stemming from cross contamination from their customers and their overseeing bureaucracies? The film condemned the evils of disposable diapers. So a household can save $1,200 a year buy using cloth diapers. Perhaps, but who is going to wash them in most dual income households? A cloth diaper service dissipates the supposed savings. Bag It encourages bagging water bottles for reusable ones. Unfortunately, the Capitol Grounds does not allow external food or drink, so there was five abandoned metal water bottles at the entrance to the Capitol Visitor Center.

The showing on Capitol Hill was meant to rally more governmental involvement for recycling programs, sin taxes and strict testing of plastics. Being a passionate recycler, it is dismaying to witness what actually happens to our separated recyclables. DC law for years mandates separating disposed paper from trash. Not that the “undocumented” cleaning crews pay any mind protecting the blue containers from the rest of the “basura”. But the unionized refuse engineers do the same thing with their collected recyclables at the dump. This gives me the impression that while I am acting locally, it is just a self congratulatory exercise.

The 5 cent a bag tax that DC imposed on one time disposable plastic bags reduced usage from 22 million to 3 million a month. That’s great. But the dirty little secret is that DC officials are upset that they were so successful as they only raised $1.7 million from the sin tax instead of the $3.1 million that was projected. Despite this revenue shortfall, former DC Mayor Adrien Fenty proposed an intergovernmental transfer of bag tax revenue to non-environmental spending. There are competing governmental interests. The environmental goal of reducing plastic pollution, the revenue enhancing motive to bring in more governmental revenue and stanching the estimated $23 million in sales tax losses attributable to the bag tax. Tough to tell which side will win.

It sounds noble to have better testing of the effects of plastics to human health, changing the legal presumption of innocence until proven guilty stands our legal process on its head. Additionally, I think of the consequences of the do something disease that infected Congress after the Chinese Lead scare from 2008. The Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act required testing of everything for lead involved in childrens’ products. Observers have alleged that it has devastated the toy industry. But the CPSI also raises costs on everything. The testing might make sense for some products, but it includes testing for lead ingestion of spark plugs on childrens’ All Terrain Vehicles. I doubt that kids who are capable of riding an ATV will be stupid enough to regularly lick spark plugs. The testing requirement also threatened the childrens’ second hand clothes market. So much for the reuse mantra of environmental obsessionists.

Bag it alludes to the multiple use soft drink bottles used in Germany. It is impressive that a tough plastic bottle can be used up to 25 times. What the film did not mention is that this was driven by private corporations, not governmental involvement. True, the German Einwegpfand imposes an expensive €0.25 deposit on one time use containers. But corporations set their own rates for beer and water, so there is an incentive to develop durable vessels. The film does not explore the trials and tribulations of th 35 year old bottle tax in Michigan, where the 10 cent a bottle deposit inspires a 96% redemption rate. But it is estimated that the costs associated with redemption and cleaning costs the businesses 3 cents a bottle. Social justice types might want to consider the disparate impact that deposits have on the poor and vulnerable.

Bag It does raise some interesting environmental challenges. Pointing to an ever expanded and imposing role for government rather than developing private sector incentives is unfortunate but not unexpected. The insistence that we need to embrace an environment where we willingly have less is not really the American Dream and is fraught with unintended consequences, which are blithe-fully ignored.

If you want to watch Bag It for yourself, it will air on P.B.S. on April 22nd. It is exactly the sort of show which makes one question why the American Taxpayer needs to pay for a socialist screed.

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