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PLASTIC STRAW FAUX PAS: Illuminating America’s addiction to single-use plastic

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Little things matter. That’s the message behind the new short documentary, ‘Straws,’ showing at Cucalorus on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. at Union Station.

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Little things matter.

That’s the message behind the new short documentary, “Straws,” showing at Cucalorus on Thursday, Nov. 9, at 1 p.m. at Union Station. Directed and produced by Linda Booker, narrated by Academy-Award-winning actor Tim Robbins, and featuring music by Uniontown and San-Francisco-based M the Machine, the film weaves together stories from activists, restaurateurs, biologists, and artists to focus on the giant problem of plastic in the ocean around one seemingly innocuous item: the plastic straw.

According to the film, the average daily U.S. consumption of plastic drinking straws (which are, as the film points out, non-recyclable and “only solve the problem of,  what? Lifting a cup to your face?”) is in the neighborhood of 500-550 million. To put it another way, America uses so many straws in 24 hours that, if lined up end to end, they would wrap around the circumference of Earth two and a half times. Mostly, once the straws get used, they end up in landfills—or worse, the ocean.

Clearly, we need to have a country-wide discussion about national habits. And that’s where the film fits in. By choosing to zoom in on one bite-sized element of a larger issue, we can begin to see solutions, rather than become overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. The film looks to restaurants (including East at the Blockade Runner on Wrightsville Beach) which have made the switch to biodegradable paper straws, and points out how they not only produce less waste but can actually save money.

“I want people to never use a plastic straw again,” says producer Linda Booker during our phone interview. It’s not an anti-straw film, she claims, but a film that urges people to look closer at their single-use plastic habits and “start the conversation [about] consumption and production of plastics.” About 91 percent of plastics made to date still exist on Earth and take a long time to break down. She mentions that most plastic found in oceanic gyres (large, circular pelagic currents which encourage flotsam to congregate in one place) date from 30 to 40 years ago. “I wanted to find a way to demonstrate a global problem in a way that was impactful, while also being careful not to overwhelm people,” she continues.

One way she achieves this is through humor. The film opens with a short animated segment explaining the history of straws and how we got to where we are today. The drawings are goofy, and the sound effects are campy and  incite a few chuckles, which the film completely allows. It’s a welcome relief from the typical (and unfortunately, accurate) doom-and-gloom portrait most environmentally-focused films bludgeon the viewer over the head with. Booker admitted her inspiration as a filmmaker comes not only from the documentarians she respects who helped define the genre (Michael Moore, Errol Morris and Morgan Spurlock), but also from the twisted humor of Monty Python and the Coen brothers.

This is the third film Booker has shown at Cucalorus: “Love Lived on Death Row” and “Bringing it Home,” which she co-directed with Blaire Johnson, cinematographer on “Straws” and Booker’s classmate at Duke University’s documentary film program. This project was born while Booker was at the Sonoma International Film Festival (where “Straws” was also shown). “Straws were not on my radar,” she explained. There are lots of policies and discussions surrounding bottles and bags, but not straws.

While there she met activist Jackie Nunez from Monterrey, California, a kayak guide who has seen firsthand the impact humanity’s debris can have on wild spaces. Nunez, who appears frequently in the film, speaks of a personal epiphany while in a restaurant overlooking Monterrey Bay. She was handed a drink with a straw in it, which she didn’t ask for. It was her own personal “last straw.” So she started the “Last Plastic Straw” campaign to urge local restaurants to move away from the wasteful devices, switch to biodegradable alternatives, and implement a straw-by-request-only policy. “I was intrigued,” Booker says. After a successful Kickstarter campaign (boosted by a miraculous last-minute “angel funder” from LA), “Straws” was underway.

It was perhaps serendipitous that, during production of the film, a video of a sea turtle with a plastic straw caught in its nose went viral. “The turtle became the mascot,” Booker tells. That one video helped demonstrate how large of an effect a small plastic item like a straw can have on wildlife. Elsewhere we have seen pictures of the rainbow cornucopia of plastic pieces found in the gullets of decomposing albatross or nutrient-starved fish, but there’s something about a sea turtle that makes people perk up and pay attention—especially when the turtle seems to wince when the researcher removes the culprit straw. That one turtle, like in ancient legend, seemed to carry the weight of all human pollution of the world on its back. Booker knew she had to fly to Costa Rica to interview the researchers who filmed the incident; she got some of my favorite footage in the entire film.

It’s always nice to see a work of art make a positive impact on the real world. Aardvark Straws, the maker of the paper straws featured in the film, has pledged to donate their product for use at Cucalorus. The paper straws will be exclusively used at Cucalorus parties and in the filmmakers’ lounge.

While our work ahead still remains cut out for us, education from films like this play a key part in shaping the choices we make today, which can help change how the future looks. I, for one, would like to see my someday-grandkids playing on a beach (which might be lapping at the shores of Raleigh by that point, if sea-level rise continues) free of plastic pollution, and covered in shells and driftwood and ghost crabs, not straws and grocery bags. A conscious choice on the part of all of us can help make that happen.

And next time, before you drink from a straw, think of turtles.

Sky Panel Shorts: Documents and Debts
Featuring Straws and more
Thurs., Nov. 9, 1 p.m.
CFCC Union Station
411 N. Front St.
Tickets: $10

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