TRASHED: the Film (a review)

Still from the movie Trashed.

Barely five minutes into the screening of TRASHED: the film, as the camera follows the dashing Jeremy Irons on a contemplative stroll along a beach beneath a garbage glacier in Saida, Lebanon, another film came to mind — WALL-E,  Pixar’s fable of the robotic redemption of a trashed planet Earth. You may recall some of the visuals there: crumbling dirt towers, mind-boggling piles of refuse and the detritus of a disposable civilization that had fled long ago on corporate-logoed spaceships.

The comparisons end quickly, though, because TRASHED makes such a visceral, dramatic argument that our wasteful, throwaway culture is really responsible for burying us, drowning us and choking us all, with no saviors in sight. And in the meantime, it is clear that whether garbage pickers in dumps or sea turtles, the first and most profoundly affected by our filth are the least powerful and privileged. If we don’t want to deal with reusing or repurposing something, we toss it away out of sight (and out of mind). Ultimately, though, this solid waste ends up burned, buried or just dumped. Where the waste meets water or air, pollutants from our highly engineered and toxic effluvia spread there too. And the chemicals in question end up in all of our blood, the effects of which are still being determined.

Such is the story Irons tells as co-executive producer and narrator of the film directed by Candida Brady and scored by Vangelis. His worldwide odyssey takes us through incinerators in Iceland, farms in France, a prison in the United Kingdom (where anaerobic digesters divert waste), people who live amidst Jakarta’s waste along an Indonesian river and the Pacific garbage patch.

Omnipresent efforts by Big Trash have largely succeeded in keeping those juicy bags of waste oozing into your bins as usual, so it’s easy to stay bored and disengaged. On the other hand, you could also get extra fired up!

Irons also wants to show us what can happen when humans are exposed to dioxins, toxic chemicals which can be created through waste incineration. What’s worse is that dioxin only becomes more concentrated in successive generations. Perhaps the most dramatic example of what can happen courtesy of intense dioxin exposure, birth defects are still rampant in Vietnam over forty years after the area was sprayed heavily with Agent Orange. You may recall that from roughly 1962-1971, the United States sprayed the herbicide over almost 12% of the land in Vietnam, allegedly to destroy jungle cover for Viet Cong troops. (Really, this incinerated rural peasants' food supplies so they had to leave for US-controlled urban areas.) So Irons visits an orphanage in Vietnam where he takes us to see the preserved remains of infants with the worst defects; he also introduces us to children with defects who must be cared for in institutions (if they are lucky enough to wind up in them). We're reminded by experts that it would take six generations to eliminate the dioxins we're already all carrying in our blood. Since incineration methods of all kinds produce them, this doesn’t bode well.

Prior to the screening, Irons told an official from New York City that the film is meant to be seen by decision makers. (The official? Mayor Michael Bloomberg. What, you can’t get him to return your calls?) This is a straight-up piece of advocacy filmmaking whose structure is straightforward and yes, earnest.

After being scared, sickened, horrified or just becoming better informed, viewers get our idealistic reward: Irons' tour of facilities with the unionized, locally-hired workforce handling San Francisco’s massive, mandated composting and recycling program that has enabled waste diversion of up to 78 percent. We meet a shopkeeper in London whose store doesn’t use packaging; your foodstuffs are available in bulk instead and you only take exactly what you need. Novel! (I bet that cuts down on food waste, too.) And guess what—with some repetition and a little encouragement, we could be successful at changing our ways. According to the shop manager, “it usually takes three tries for [shoppers] to remember everything, and then they get the hang of it.” The point is, the film shows us other possibilities for managing our trash. I wasn’t the only policy-oriented person in the room making notes.

As last week’s Mother Jones piece notes, omnipresent efforts by Big Trash have largely succeeded in keeping those juicy bags of waste oozing into your bins as usual, so it’s easy to stay bored and disengaged. On the other hand, you could also get extra fired-up. After the screening, an engaged panel of community activists discussed issues relating to “waste-to-energy” proposals being floated by New York City which could trigger the same side effects of conventional incineration. The panel talked about their ideas for alternative waste removal in New York (as you may imagine, New York’s daily 35,000 tons of refuse presents a constant urban planning challenge) with city officials attending in Mayor Bloomberg’s stead. Activists discussed all of these proposals in the context of environmental justice, or lack thereof — specifically, the preponderance of waste transfers, landfills and incinerators located in neighborhoods home to communities of color who bear the brunt of resulting side effects.

I'd recommend checking this film out if you have the chance. Having debuted at Cannes, it’s making the rounds of film festivals and special screenings, and has just been nominated for an award at the Raindance Festival in London, where it will also screen. We'll keep you posted as to wider availability, particularly for school groups and teachers.