#DrowningInPlastic fails to address economics or human needs

I watched Liz Bonnin’s Drowning in Plastic documentary as I have heard plenty, through headlines and punditry, about how evil and disgusting plastic is and how it must be banned. I was sceptical that plastic could be as bad as depicted and wanted to listen in a bit more depth.

Like most I found the various depictions the impact to sea life disgusting and saddening. One bird, for example, had eaten its weight in plastic which had become stuck in its stomach and it was unable to fly to hunt. Seals had vicious cuts to their necks and majestic whales were entangled with an ungainly mess of ropes.

Consistently, however, the economics of the situation for humans were missed. The most thorough coverage of the impact on humans came very late in the program where organised fishermen from Cape Code were permitted a voice but only alongside coverage of their own efforts to solve the problem themselves. This was all very thin and was arranged very late into the program. This was not a a case of plastic being put on trial, it was an emotional and largely one-sided tirade.

There was nodding coverage of the fact that plastic sachets in the remote Philippines had enabled a dramatic improvement in the local people’s way of life. Later in the program Bonnin emerged from the sea frustrated holding a clutch of the sachets in hand. That fact the sachets were revolutionary for humans was not reintroduced. Nor was it noted that the sachets, a very irksome part of the problem for Bonnin, seemed to be a problem exclusively in non-western non capitalist societies where, as a consequence, dirt and flies were prolific. In fact, of the problems discussed, only that of lobster fishing was associated with a developed western economy.

When Bonnin did try to describe the arrangements in depth she failed to pick up on interesting questions.  In one broad stretch of river floating plastic had formed a dirty boom across its width. We were shown how locals in long shallow boats bent on their knees to pick valuable plastic from the water for recycling. We were also shown that the plastic came from impoverished rural communities who were throwing plastic in heaps down river banks. What was not explained is why the two groups had not managed to connect themselves together. If plastic is so valuable that people will bend over the side of a boat to filter it out, then why can they not organise themselves to do that on land? What barriers exist between these peoples?

When Bonnin went to visit entrepreneurs working to solve the various problems she was similarly shallow in her economic questioning. For example, she showed a frankly amazing floating device in a Canadian harbour. It was powered by the flow of water, supplemented by solar energy. It was able to pick tons of plastic from the water in a day. It was, apparently, far too expensive for many “local authorities” to afford. You won’t be surprised to learn that there was no mention of tax payers at this point or their competing needs, but there was also zero discussion of whether this plastic recovery could actually be profitable.

Likewise, the amazing edible sea weed packaging material was described as having great potential with great interest from corporations. You would not catch me eating it, but it was still an impressive product. Bonnin omitted any discussion about the challenges the seaweed entrepreneur faced commercially, therefore stifling any efforts her impassioned audience might exert to solve those specific problems. Instead, we were told there was some lingering concern about the impact of seaweed farming. Facepalm!

There was some other discussion, finally, very late in the program of an island community organising to profit from sea borne plastics. But the fact is that Bonnin consistently failed to pick up on interesting economic questions, failed to interview entrepreneurs in any real depth on economic issues and in doing so offered little to support the audience in coming to a balanced view.

Predictably the #DrowningInPlastic hashtag is drowning in emotive calls to action to ban plastic and save the cute animals. It is as if we have forgotten what it is that makes our lives possible, and the role of plastic products in making human beings comfortable.


  1. I never watched Drowning In Plastic because the content of the show was all too predictable.

    There was a great recent edition of National Geographic that looked at the plastic issue in depth. One thing that stands out is the economic aspect of plastic use. It will not surprise people to hear that the VAST majority of waste plastic comes from developing Asian countries. In fact, Asia (all of it), West Africa and Central America create the lions share of the world’s waste plastic.

    One of the big benefits of plastic is that is makes food clean and last a really long time. Which is important. Oh, and it is very very cheap to produce. In fact access to cheap plastic seems to be a key factor in how poor countries develop.

    An awful lot of ‘environmental’ groups are profoundly ‘anti-human’. If we are really going to crack the waste plastic issue- we will need to work with people, not against them.



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