Friday, February 12, 2010

Propounding on the new documentary Tapped and our world of plastic (bottles)

Brought to us by the those who brought us Who Killed the Electric Car, Tapped—a documentary mostly about bottled water—recently screened as part of the UC|Sustainability Film Series for Winter 2010. The film exhbited where bottled water is sourced, which companies are behind the various brands of “natural spring water”, the containers in which it is sold, and the generally hidden impacts of bottled water on our environment and health. Although I was aware of the concerns of plastic packaging, as well as the unnecessary use and waste of water resources, Tapped was an engaging work that seemed to impact all in attendance.

Several topics in the film caused my innards to sink. It was the same disgust when I feel when the following ingredients are applied to the same recipe: individual ignorance by choice and corporate apathy. It is fairly simple for someone to point the finger solely at the insiders’ club—vile industry and the government at its mercy. But several times during the film, it was expressed that voting with our feet is ever so important. In this case, it is all about voting with our wallets.

One topic that disturbed me was environmental degradation in the name of plastic, If I recall correctly, 30 million plastic bottles are disposed every day, but only half make it into the recycling stream. The other half makes its way into landfills, rivers and streams, and even wash up on distant islands in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The film exhbited one such beach that no longer had the pure white sand it solely featured for thousands of years. Instead, it was littered with millions of small pieces of plastic. Our consumer choices translate into loss of habitat for marine life. Our culture of convenience translates into a lower quality of life for fellow humans and entire ecosystems alike. This is precisely the big picture thinking that I fear lacks in collective society only days after seeing realm-rocking documentaries about real life quasi-chaos.

My primary concern leads me to borrow a couple terms from the business world, both of which I picked up an Organization Theory course. After seeing several environmentally focused documentaries like Food Inc, The Age of Stupid, No Impact Man, and others, I cannot help but think of a class discussion on the difference between “corporate responsibility” and “corporate responsiveness”. Companies like Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle likely will not alter their practices of virtually stealing water from local water bodies, (which was shown to result in “overharvesting” even during droughts), unless they are trounced with government regulation. Their image of “pure” and “clean”, and their sleek bottle design is about as bad a Starbucks’ recent greenwashing.

Corporate responsibility usually comes into play when a company comes under fire for objectionable practices. It is a chicken-and-egg issue though. The film interviewed a former EPA official, who quit the agency after being told that he was not permitted to take action against a petrochemical company (those which make the petroleum-based resin used in plastic production), which was causing adverse health effects in residents of nearby Corpus Christi. However, if enough people complained to the agency, he would then be allowed to enforce penalties. But where do we obtain that critical mass, when much our bountiful news and informational sources tell us what they want us to know?

However, I would actually like to concurrently mention both my concerns by replacing “corporate” with “environmental”—and not just our natural environments. Both industries and communities must find a way to coexist in good health somehow. Leveraging partnerships with big corporations seems to be a key ingredient of establishing sustainable relationships, no matter how large or small your neighbors really are. Perhaps it could be via institutions with government as a silent figure at the table—a mediator of sorts. The creation of a long-term plan to live in harmony with each other—that is necessary, I feel. But like the uprising against tobacco companies and their evil mind tricks, government must play a facilitiating role. Government has regulatory measures in place to prevent the free market from taking over our societal reins. It seems that we run into problems when an adminstration comes along that deregulates the corporate realm.

We are ingrained in a culture that responds to chaos but does not do a very good job at using preventative measures, that is, until tragedy strikes. That is environmental responsibility, motivated by a range of factors tied to consequence. Environmental responsiveness—I believe—in achieved when two or more partners engage in a long-term commitment to address the always-looming issues in our lives. The different is that environmental responsiveness can be an antidote to the cynical response that laymen have against the limited scope and results of environmental and corporate responsibility. In the case of bottled water, government can help to take back our local waters. There is evidence that it is always working.

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