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Trashed cover image

Trashed 2013


Distributed by Green Planet Films, PO Box 247, Corte Madera, CA 94976-0247; 415-377-5471
Produced by Candida Brady and Titus Ogilvy
Directed by Candida Brady and Titus Ogilvy
DVD , color, 97 min.

General Adult
Ecology, Environmental Justice, Waste Disposal, Urban Ecology, Globalization

Date Entered: 05/01/2014

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

The actor Jeremy Irons brings his environmental conscience to the screen in this investigation of the global system of trash production. The documentary’s goal is to reveal the noxious and largely ignored consequence of global consumerism: a world wallowing in its own filth.

Prior to the industrial revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, most waste was organic, and thus biodegradable. Modern waste, however, is primarily inorganic and the waste stream, as a result, has become progressively more toxic. Exploring the ecology of rubbish disposal, Irons investigates the two main ways to deal with this growing mass of toxic rubbish: incineration or burial. The narrative of the documentary is a familiar one in the environmental movement since the Club of Rome issued its report, the Limits to Growth, in 1972: a Malthusian scenario of a world consuming itself to death.

The film aims to shock its viewers out of complacency with stories of waste nightmares, and of government and industry colluding to conceal the toxic truth of the landfill and trash incineration business. As a solution to the trash problem, trash incinerators often release more toxic elements into the environment than the original waste – the dirty little secret of the incineration industry, frequently touted by its advocates as an environmentally responsible form of disposal.

While the film poignantly reveals the ecological and biological impact of trash after it has been dumped or incinerated, it focuses less on explaining the life-cycle of trash – from the point of production, the consumer throwing away his or her plastic bag, and then tracing its movement through various sanitation systems and eventually into the landfill or incinerator. The impact of trash production on the poor and powerless, and on reinforcing social and class divisions, is also largely unanalyzed. The fouling of the nest, like so much else, affects disproportionately the poor and powerless. They are the ones who must suffer the often toxic and aesthetic impact of trash disposal. Much of the middle part of the film contains an analysis of the impact of dioxins, heavy metals and plastic on human biology. But the viewer learns little about the treatment of trash at its point of production, the part of the life-cycle of trash most ignored in this thought-provoking and beautifully-produced documentary.

The film ends on a hopeful note, suggesting sustainable, non-polluting approaches to trash management – the use of reusable bags, the reduction of packaging, turning recycling into a source of profit and economic growth along the lines of the city of San Francisco. The happy, Hollywood ending seems to conflict with the depressing evidence in the rest of the film – the horrific images, for example of the non-biodegradable gyre of trash twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. Along with four other gyres in the world’s oceans, these gyres are poisoning the entire marine food chain. It seems unlikely that the mega-cities of Beijing, New Delhi, or Jakarta have the political will to replicate the example of San Francisco featured in the film.

The presence of Jeremy Irons, both as the star of the film and executive producer, provides resources and production values often absent in documentary film-making. Vangelis, for example, provides the excellent soundtrack for the film, which evokes a constant sense of foreboding and doom, and Irons is an amiable and articulate guide. But that does not necessarily make for a better product. The focus of the film at times is too much on the famous actor and not enough on the subject itself. For another film on garbage, which seems to have inspired Trashed, see Beijing Besieged by Waste . Trashed begins with scenes from Beijing Besieged by Waste, haunting images of troll-like figures picking through mountains of filth, along with sheep, in the vast fields of trash surrounding Beijing. In contrast to Trashed, the narrator and producer, La Ji Wei Cheng, maintains a humble and unobtrusive presence – allowing the subject matter, rather than the narrator, to become the sole focus of the film. After watching Cheng’s film it is hard to imagine how Beijing might replicate the example of sustainability in San Francisco discussed by Irons. Rather than confront the immense challenge of changing the habits of billions of people in Asia only recently embracing capitalist consumerism, Trashed instead lauds a rejection of that lifestyle by the very same Westerners who have benefited most from the consumer boom of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is perhaps a simple matter for those with more, like Jeremy Irons, to do with less; but for those on the bottom of the global socio-economic system getting their first taste of the consumer lifestyle, the message of sustainability may sound instead like a commandment to stay poor and needy – rightly or wrongly – and to let the Europeans and Americans consume the lion’s share of the earth’s resources, even as they preach the gospel of de-consumerism to their supposedly benighted brothers and sisters in the newly developed world.