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Plastic People reveals how pollution from Big Oil accumulates inside the human body

Plastic People
Science journalist Ziya Tong travelled to several countries, incuding the Philippines (above), to document the impact of plastics on human health in Plastic People. © Plastic People Documentary Productions.

Toronto science journalist Ziya Tong knows why people react so emotionally to oil spills. It’s because it’s impossible to ignore the mess and harm to wildlife. But according to Tong, co-director of the stunning new documentary Plastic People, other devastating externalities of the oil and gas industry are far less visible. Therefore, these forms of pollution don’t elicit similar responses.

“I feel like when people see an oil spill, they take action,” Tong tells the Toronto Spark over Zoom. “They’re horrified; they’re mortified; and they act.

“An oil spill is quite different from the CO2 emissions coming from our tailpipe because it’s visible,” she continues. “So, for us, this movie is really about the oil spill in the human body.”

That’s because plastics are created from oil and gas.

Ben Addelman (Bombay Calling, Kivalina v. Exxon) wrote and shares the director credit for Plastic People, which was created through a partnership with White Pine Pictures, Telus Independent, Canada Media Fund, and Telefilm Canada. It will have its Canadian premiere on May 10 at Vancouver’s DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Screenings will be held later that month in Waterloo, Hamilton, and Toronto.

Even though Tong has 20 years of experience in television, including 10 years as co-host of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet, she describes herself as “the newbie director”.

“One of the things that we really wanted to do was focus on the human health story because what we wanted to tie together is this connection between planetary health and human health,” Tong explains. “So many people are aware of the plastics crisis, but now there’s a health crisis because plastics are starting to infiltrate the human body.”

Plastic People
Plastic People highlights scientific research showing how microplastics move between an expectant mother and a fetus inside her womb. Image (c) Plastic Soup Foundation.

Plastic breaks down but never disappears

The filmmakers demonstrate this by highlighting cutting-edge research in several countries revealing why microplastics are among the most serious pollutants ever created. Plastic People points out that they are found on the highest mountain peaks, in the deepest ocean sediments, and inside human bodies.

Moreover, the film documents how microplastics have been detected in human placenta and the bloodstream. It concludes with a shocking discovery by a Turkish researcher.

“A lot of this…globetrotting took place because we had to go to where the stories were breaking,” Tong states.

As narrator and a participant in the film, Tong serves as a human test subject. She’s seen putting plastic in her eyes as she dons her contact lenses. And she undergoes testing to determine the toxic buildup of microplastics in her own body.

“There are some microplastics that are made as microplastics, whether those are microplastics in your mascara that are meant to be really tiny, or whether it’s the microplastics like glitter,” Tong says.

Then there are the pervasive synthetic polymers, such as rubber or nylon. These materials are created from repeating chains of smaller chemical units bound together to form various products ranging from tires to clothing to plastic bottles.

According to Plastic People, more than 400 million tons of plastics are created every year. Almost half go into single-use items. These harmful substances break down from the elements. However, they never disappear after disintegrating into smaller particles.

“So all those plastics are in our dust, in our water, in the food that we’re eating, and in the air that we’re breathing,” Tong says.

Plasttic People
Cukurova University marine plastics researcher Sedat Gündoğdu, who’s based in Turkey, is one of many international experts interviewed for the film. © Plastic People Documentary Productions.

Historical images help tell the story

One of the film’s key takeaways is this: “We are slowly turning into plastic people.”

Meanwhile, there’s another type of microplastic insidiously working its way into the food chain: nurdles. According to Tong, these are tiny little pellets of plastic that are formulated, melted, compressed, or molded into different products.

“When those plastics enter the ecosystem, they can be incredibly damaging,” Tong says.

To reinforce this point, Tong mentions reading a recent study on the formation of invertebrate embryos in the ocean.

“All 10 species that they studied had huge problems,” Tong states. “The embryos weren’t forming normally or naturally.”

The film also raises serious questions about the future of human fertility in the wake of this onslaught of plastic pollution.

Peter Raymont, Rick Smith, and Steve Ord are executive producers of Plastic People. It’s produced by Vanessa Dylyn and Stephen Pannicia. One of the unsung heroes is archive producer Sonja Carr, who dug up an astonishing variety of historical imagery that forms a critical part of the story. With the help of this footage, the film reveals how industrial producers of plastics marketed their harmful substances to the world.

It’s a timely documentary, coming just as 175 nations are working to create a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee is holding meetings in Ottawa from April 23 to 29, which can be seen on UN Web TV.

Juliet Kabera
The director general of the Rwanda Environment Management Authority, Juliet Kabera, is playing a pivotal role in the international fight against plastics pollution.

Rwanda offers hope to the world

Plastic People reveals that two countries from the Global South, Rwanda and Peru, are leading the way on creating an international plastics treaty.

“I was in Rwanda in November,” Tong says. “It’s clean—like ‘Singapore clean’, maybe cleaner than Singapore. It was shocking. There was no plastic anywhere.”

Then, she adds that if Rwanda can accomplish this, then Canada should be able to do it too.

Tong remains optimistic, even while describing Plastic People as being akin to “Barbie: The Horror Movie”.

“I see solutions here—and I’m not just making this up,” she insists. “I’m actually more hopeful about this than I am about the climate threat.”

One reason is various citizen actions, which are documented in the film. People are suing large companies. Furthermore, she maintains that solutions aren’t that complicated. Her grandparents’ generation, for example, didn’t fill their homes with plastic. Rather, they bought products that often lasted for decades.

“We need to see the corporations step up and actually reduce their plastic use,” Tong declares. “I think of Coca-Cola, which is the Number 1 plastics polluter on the planet. They used to use glass. They can go back to glass, absolutely.”

Watch the trailer for Plastic People.

Event details

The DOXA Documentary Film Festival will present Plastic People at 5:30 p.m. on May 10 at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema in the SFU Woodward’s Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. For more information and tickets, visit the DOXA festival website. Plastic People will also be at the Princess Twin Theatre in Waterloo on May 21, and at the Playhouse Theatre in Hamilton on May 22. In Toronto, it will be screened on May 28 at the Royal Theatre and on June 1 and 11 at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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