Thanks to big companies’ successful PR moves, we often think plastic pollution results from consumers’ lack of recycling. That action, or lack thereof, comes at the end of a very long manufacturing chain, though. Have you, like we at zNano, ever considered where plastic comes from to begin with?

A new documentary, The Story of Plastic, airing on Discovery Channel asks this question head-on. A review on the Greenpeace website by Shilpi Chhotray from the organization Break Free from Plastic provides a nice summary of the issues.

The “untold story of plastic begins here,” she says, “in the shadow of sprawling petrochemical complexes run by giants like Dow, ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips, in Houston, Texas – one of the topmost plastic production regions in the world. Nearly every single piece of plastic starts as fossil fuel, a startling reality that is front and center in the film.”

Let’s think about this. Most plastic is made from natural gases, but – speaking for ourselves – the average person knows little about what that actually means. Formally we’re told, “Plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining,” the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) says on its website. But the EIA “is unable to determine the specific amounts or origin of the feedstocks that are actually used to manufacture plastics in the United States.” The EIA is the statistical and analytical agency within the U.S. Department of Energy. What’s a “feedstock?” A common one is the pollutant methane gas.

So who’s “determining” what these ingredients are and what risks they pose? Researchers outside the petrochemical industries, for one. In a 2018 article published at PLOS One, for example, oceanographer Sarah-Jeanne Royer and a team showed that plastics are a previously unreported source of greenhouse gas pollution.

“Mass production of plastics started nearly 70 years ago and the production rate is expected to double over the next two decades,” Royer says. “While serving many applications because of their durability, stability and low cost, plastics have deleterious effects on the environment. Plastic is known to release a variety of chemicals during degradation, which has a negative impact on biota. Here, we show that the most commonly used plastics produce two greenhouse gases, methane and ethylene, when exposed to ambient solar radiation.” Translation: plastic degrading outdoors in sunlight – like on beaches and in oceans around the world – is releasing gases into the environment.

As the film explains, after plastic is manufactured by petrochemical companies, it’s used by food and beverage companies like the top five plastic polluters, Coca Cola, Nestle, Unilever, PepsiCo and MDLZ. Never heard of MDLZ? That’s Mondelez International, Inc., an American multinational food, snack and beverage company based in Chicago. They market products in 165 countries around the world and include brands such as Cadbury, Toblerone, Chips Ahoy, Trident, Triscuit and Tang.

Plastic is generated and used by international big business, yet the responsibility for recycling is pushed onto individuals. The Story of Plastic explains the bigger cycle and reveals the mismatch between the giants producing and using plastic – “Big Plastic” – and the work to rid the natural environment of plastic pollution.

“False narratives were meticulously crafted by the plastics industry to shirk meaningful responsibility and keep a shiny spotlight on the individual consumer,” Chhotray says in her review. The “documentary takes a sweeping look at the man-made crisis of plastic pollution and its impact on the health of our planet. Spanning three continents, the film illustrates the ongoing catastrophe of extraction – skies choked with poisonous emissions from plastic production and processing….”

The Story of Plastic is available on DiscoveryGo, Amazon,  Apple TV and Xfinity video-on-demand.