Trashed: documentary shines light on global waste crisis

Jeremy Irons narrates the film. Photo from Trashed website

Killer whales so contaminated that they were classified as toxic waste. A once-beautiful Lebanese beach that’s now a towering mound of garbage, bleeding contaminants into the Mediterranean Sea. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, an area the size of Quebec that has six times as much plastic as zooplankton, the foundation of the food chain.

We all know that trash is a serious environmental problem, but it’s hard to grasp the full extent of the global predicament. And even if you are well-informed, it’s good to be reminded that waste is, in the eyes of the creators of Trashed, the most dire environmental crisis today.

British documentary Trashed tells the story of the world’s waste disposal problems through the eyes of Jeremy Irons. The actor-turned-environmental activist takes the audience around the world, showing first some of the most gory garbage patches, before presenting the challenges of getting rid of such trash.

This Indonesian river is used as a landfill, a source of drinking water and a bathing site for Jakarta slum-dwellers. Photo from Trashed website.

Incinerators: a burning problem

Incinerators might seem like a neat way to vaporize the problem, but they’re far from a panacea. The ash from burnt garbage is even more toxic than the garbage itself, and even the most efficient incinerators can’t hold back all of it.

Irons visits towns in England and France that have high cancer rates that locals blame on neighbouring landfills and incinerators. To show just how bad it can get, he visits Vietnamese children with birth defects caused by ‘Agent Orange,’ a wartime chemical weapon that contains the same dioxins belched out by incinerators.

Irons takes us to seemingly idyllic Iceland, where a farmer has to cull all of his livestock because the toxins from the nearby incinerator have contaminated his fields. And that’s from a modern, expensive incinerator that has repeatedly installed the latest and greatest filtration systems.

Metro Vancouver is planning to build a new incinerator, and Zero Waste BC, the host of Monday’s screening of Trashed, is campaigning the stop it. The project is already taking bids for its construction, but the activists are optimistic because there hasn’t been a new incinerator built in North America since 1997. The project, touted as a waste-to-energy facility, will be a power source, but Zero Waste BC is concerned about its noxious emissions.

Trying to solve the problem

The documentary isn’t all doom and gloom. Towards the end of the film Irons presents some positive steps groups and individuals are taking. Of course there’s the reduce-reuse-recycle motif, but it’s interesting to learn the extent that it can make a difference, and how recycling can even make sense economically.

For example, the American recycling rate is only 33 per cent, while San Francisco has managed to achieve a rate of 75 per cent (the filmmakers state that we should be able to recycle a full 90 per cent). If the whole country recycled 75 per cent of their trash, 1.5 million jobs would be created to manage it, and money would be saved by making production processes more efficient.

Irons also visited a grocery store that uses no packaging, so people bring their own Tupperware and bags. He visited a facility that turns food waste into fertilizer, thus taking composting to the next level.

The nice thing about waste reduction is it’s a cause that’s easy to make a difference in. The film told me that 58 billion disposable cups are thrown away each year, and I cringed, thinking of the coffee cup I had thrown out that morning. So this morning I brought my own thermos to work, determined that the movie’s message would not be wasted on me.

Photo from Trashed website.

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