By Ramin Bahrani
This short film by American director Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) traces the epic, existential journey of a plastic bag (voiced by Werner Herzog) searching for its lost maker, the woman who took it home from the store and eventually discarded it. Along the way, it encounters strange creatures, experiences love in the sky, grieves the loss of its beloved maker, and tries to grasp its purpose in the world.
In the end, the wayward plastic bag wafts its way to the ocean, into the tides, and out into the Pacific Ocean trash vortex — a promised nirvana where it will settle among its own kind and gradually let the memories of its maker slip away.
To use plastic, or not to use plastic? It didn’t seem like much of a question until a couple of years ago, as I turned the pages of Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us. Weisman’s thought experiment explores a future world devoid of human life, but littered with its shadows. The shadows come in the form of decayed buildings, corroded bronze statues, and crumbled roadways, and in the midst of slowly reviving natural systems. The shadows also come in the form of a virtually indestructible manmade material: plastic. Most of the plastic produced in the world will eventually be washed out to sea, where it will join the other human detritus in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
When I first learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (an area of human rubbish — mostly plastic — within the North Pacific Gyre), it was estimated to be twice the size of Texas. The existence of the garbage patch, in itself, was disturbing enough to warrant action, but when I learned that most of this plastic will persist in our environment for thousands of years, causing ongoing damage to our ecosystem, I had my answer.
To use plastic? Absolutely not.
There didn’t seem to be any way of avoiding plastic use, however, short of shutting myself away from this throwaway society. Although I realized that this problem does not have the same magnitude as climate change, I experienced the same sense of helplessness that I felt when I first learned that humans are altering the climate, and that the solutions to the problems seem out of reach. I was really angry when I learned about the plastic problem — angry to learn of another industry producing waste as if it is as harmless and natural as the air we breathe. I started to learn more about the issue and found horrible photos of tortoises that had matured with plastic rings from six-packs cinched around their shells, causing them to be profoundly deformed. I saw albatross carcasses whose digestive tracts were clogged with plastic materials they had mistaken for food. I read countless studies that linked plastics with health concerns, such as hormonal malfunction and cancer.
How could I justify my plastic use, knowing that it contributes to the degradation of life on this planet and will do so for at least a century — and probably for much longer? Out of all the concerns I had about plastic, the one that troubled me the most was this: plastic is, effectively, forever. It will never biodegrade and can only photodegrade over a geologic time scale.
I realized that the manmade objects that I interacted with most were the ones that I was quickest to throw away — the cup from my morning coffee, the container for my salad at lunch, not to mention the cutlery I used to eat it. A lot of the produce I bought at the store was placed on styrofoam plates and then shrink wrapped. Most stores that I visited used plastic bags, and it was customary at the corner store to get two bags for a gallon of milk (also packaged in plastic). I started using reusable shopping bags, but sensed that the store clerks were disturbed by such unconventional behavior. Every time I saw a piece of plastic I recalled A World Without Us. I wondered, “What will the world be like in the future? Will we be a part of it? Or will plastic dominate the world, floating across deserted landscapes, like plastic tumbleweeds?”
As a sustainability consultant, I work not only to spread awareness of the facts but also to engage people with them. I knew that my friend, director Ramin Bahrani had also begun using reusable bags, but didn’t yet realize the scope of the plastic problem. When I told him about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, he reacted much the same as I had. We decided that the news of this problem needed to be spread. Together we developed a film that expanded beyond an environmental agenda piece. Several months later Bahrani was asked by ITVS if he had an idea for a short film that could take place in an imagined future for America. Plastic Bag was a perfect match for their search.
Since the moment when I first learned of the problem, I have not stopped researching about plastic and the implications it has for our future. My research has led me to the work of scientists, such as oceanographer Dr. Charles Moore whose work has spearheaded the movement to eliminate plastic and protect the marine life that has become engulfed in it. I looked at sustainable design concepts such as biomimicry and the cradle to cradle concept developed by William McDonough and Michael Brangaurt. Through my research, I have refined my perspective on plastics. Now I advocate working toward the complete elimination of disposable plastics, in concert with efforts to improve and increase recycling until this is possible.
I have eliminated the need for most of my disposable items by incorporating reusable items into my everyday life. I bring my own reusable cup for coffee in the morning. I pack my own salad in a reusable container and take my bamboo To-Go Ware with me everywhere. When I have to choose between glass and plastic containers, I always choose glass. I fill up my reusable produce bags at the grocery store and bring them home in a reusable shopping bag. I’ve found that it is actually very convenient to have my own things on hand, and would not want to return to my previous throwaway habits. So much of environmental awareness comes through building self-awareness. This means becoming aware of your every day actions and how they impact the world. The closer we can connect to our landscape and our fellow inhabitants (both human and non-human), the better chance we have to create a sustainable and equitable future for all of the earth’s inhabitants to share.
Years after first learning about this issue I ask myself the same question: To use plastic or not to use plastic? I realize that the answer can’t feasibly be just a clear-cut “no” at this point in time. What has become clear, however, is that we should make and use objects in our world so that they match their purpose. If something is meant to be used for only a short period of time before it is discarded, then it should be able to truly biodegrade completely into the environment or be recycled into materials that retain their initial value.
What the plastics industry needs (and what we can help them do through lobbying for bans on disposable plastics) is creative destruction. Plastic products don’t need to be eliminated from society completely, but we need to make sure that their place in this world conforms to ecological principles and matches the purpose for which we make them. Plastics should be produced sparingly, for important purposes such as medical products or for items that are intended to survive for very long time periods. And plastics should be infinitely recyclable, so that every piece of plastic that is produced can be recycled to produce new products. We can use these materials, if we use them wisely.
— Jenni Jenkins, Story/Sustainability Consultant
In the film, the bag aimlessly drifts across desolate urban landscapes and wonders “What kind of giant monsters had lived here?” Well, I don't know of any monsters, but I do know many humans that once inhabited the landscapes he floats across, including the three who are responsible for placing the bag in its bleak situation — Ramin Bahrani, Michael Simmonds, and myself. To create the look of the film, we wanted to find urban locations that evoked a feeling of destruction and desolation. The old industrial areas of Brooklyn and Queens seemed like they would be perfect matches with our vision. Many of the original warehouses are still standing. We also visited other neighborhoods that have a similar anchor in the history of New York City, such as Red Hook and Bushwick.
The areas along the waterfront in New York City are generally the richest in history. However, it is important to remember that people settled near the waterfront, not because it would eventually be a place where New York could cultivate a shipping industry, but because it was an area rich in life-sustaining resources. The Lenape Indians took to the shore because of the abundant resources there, such as oyster beds, which they relied upon for survival. Newtown Creek, now notably one of the most polluted areas in New York City, was once home to apple orchards, where the Newtown Pippin, the official “Big Apple” was grown. But now, instead of orchards and oyster beds, the waterfront is home to large warehouses — some abandoned, some inhabited (legally and illegally) by residents and other still-major players in the shipping industry. It is no longer the garden, but it can still be the natural resource that it has been. At present it is not hard to imagine monsters living there, as the plastic bag does in the film.
Although the older areas of Brooklyn served as a perfect location for an imagined future devoid of humans, I hope they do not meet that fate. Today, there are several organizations and city and regional officials working to return people to the waterfront. Currently, The CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities is producing a colloquium series that will address selected topics and issues relating to what has been achieved and what remains to be done to continue the transformation of New York’s waterfronts. Currently, I am documenting the series for the Institute so that it can remain on the internet as a resource for anyone who wants to learn more about the issue or become involved in its restoration. A link to this resource will become available on our blog PlasticBagfilm.com, in the near future.
— Jenni Jenkins, Story/Sustainability Consultant
Director / Writer / Editor
Born and raised in North Carolina, American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani’s first feature film, Man Push Cart premiered at the Venice International Film Festival (2005) and later screened at Sundance (2006). The film won more than 10 international prizes, including the FIPRESCI international critics prize at the London Film Festival (2005), before being released around the world to wide critical acclaim. The film was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards (2007) including Best First Film.
Bahrani’s second film, Chop Shop, premiered at the 2007 Cannes International Film Festival, and then screened at Toronto (2007) and Berlin (2008). Chop Shop was released worldwide to critical acclaim, winning several prizes including the Acura “Someone to Watch” Independent Spirit Award (2008) for Bahrani. In 2009 the film was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Director.
In 2008 Bahrani premiered his third film, Goodbye Solo, as an official selection of the Venice Film Festival and won the FIPRESCI international critics prize for Best Film. The film was called a “near-masterpiece” by A.O. Scott of The New York Times, and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote that “Ramin Bahrani is the new great American director.”
His latest film, a short subject entitled Plastic Bag (2009), premiered as the opening night film of Corto Cortissimo in the Venice Film Festival, where Bahrani was also on the jury for Best First Film. The film features the voice of legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog and an original score from Kjartan Sveinsson of Sigur Rós.
In early 2009, Bahrani was a recipient of the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was also the subject of several international retrospectives including the MoMA in New York City, Harvard University, and La Rochelle Film Festival in France.
Story / Sustainability Consultant
Jenni Jenkins is a sustainability consultant based in NYC finishing her degree this year in urban sustainability at Hunter College. In addition to co-writing the story for Plastic Bag with Bahrani, she is also producing a companion documentary featuring interviews with leading figures in the sustainability field including Charles Moore who first drew attention to the pacific garbage vortex.
Werner Herzog — Voice of “Plastic Bag”
Werner Herzog is the eccentric and prolific standard bearer for the late-20th century New German Cinema movement. His best-known early work includes Signs of Life (1962); Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972); Nosferatu, The Vampyre (1979); and Fitzcarraldo (1982). Recent feature films include Bad Lieutenant: Port of New Orleans (2009) and Rescue Dawn (2007), and several acclaimed documentaries, including Grizzly Man (2005) and Encounters at the End of the World (2007).