For some years now, the Committee on Environmental Improvement (CEI) of the American Chemical Society (ACS) has sponsored an environmental documentary at many of the national meetings. Often it has been possible to bring the filmmaker in for the event to do Q&A with the audience afterwards, but recently this wasn’t possible. I was asked to be part of a panel discussion afterwards, and although I was not able to prepare much, I hoped that I would be able to wing it smoothly.
Trashed (not “Wasted” as it was accidentally identified by the organizer in our committee meeting at one point,) explores the environmental impacts of waste disposal. Historically, most of human waste was organic matter and was biodegradable, so it could be buried and it would subsequently rot and decompose. It did not disrupt nature’s cycle of building up (making living things) and breaking down (dispersing dead things.) Now with so many plastics, the waste no longer breaks down, and it accumulates.
The problems of simply dumping trash are obvious, especially when looking at the shores of Lebanon, where mountains of trash wash into the water and from there onto shores throughout the Mediterranean Sea. Dumped trash ending up in the water is a global issue, and there are fables telling of “islands” of trash centering in the five enormous gyres of circular ocean currents. (Gyre was a new word for me, so I had to make sure I used it in this post.) The movie explained that this trash is not composed of bottles and boxes, but it is rather more like plastic confetti as trash is shredded but not decomposed. These plastic fragments then attract other chemicals, thus providing a new method of concentration and transportation for pesticides, wastes, and by-products.
Landfills are an improvement over dumping, but even the best managed landfills may leach undesired substances from our chemically more complex waste. Many landfills are also reaching their allowed capacity, demonstrating that this method of disposal is not an endless resource. Incinerating trash reduces the need for landfill space, but the movie pointed out that incinerators may produce toxic by-products of combustion, such as dioxin, and the ash from these incinerators generally includes a relatively high concentration of heavy metals.
Finding ways to increase recycling is thus becoming ever more urgent, although the reducing and reusing strategies are actually even more efficient. I was particularly intrigued by one vignette in which a woman frequented a a grocery store that sells only bulk products without any packaging. Customers bring not only their own bags but also their own containers for items such as flour, sugar, and cereal. The woman explained that by using this store and being very careful of what they bought, her family of three generated a single grocery bag of trash for an entire year. Everything else was recycled, reused or composted. That sounded amazing.
The discussion after the movie went well. The audience was mostly undergraduate students, although the first several people who commented were adults who seemed to want to use the event as an opportunity to lecture and to convey their own attitudes. Acutely aware that the students’ focus was wandering and the energy in the room was falling, I turned the discussion back to the students and asked what one thing they might do to respond to the film after their went home. The issue of reuse came up, and two students proudly held up Mason jars containing a brown liquid. I suggested I wasn’t sure if I should ask about the identity of the contents, but they laughed and said it was the iced tea we had for lunch. I held up my own refillable bottle and invited everyone else who had a refillable bottle to do the same, so it was a bonding experience for some of us.
I couldn’t be sure how much the movie was showcasing typical issues with trash disposal and how much they were taking advantage of particularly bad examples. Certainly the filmmakers understood that the illustrating the plight of animals was a particularly effective method of communicating the need to change our habits. I, myself, was not immune to the pictures and lists of all the trash that has been found in the stomach of a single dead bird or a single dead beached whale.
My personal take home image was the plastic confetti that is present in virtually any part of the ocean. My own small change to make has been to bring my breakfast bagel to school in a washable plastic container rather than in a plastic bag. I hope that all the audience members were equally motivated to make at least one change in their own habits.
Anyone who is interested in learning more or in buying a movie can find information at trashedmovie.com