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Just in time for the holidays, a new documentary about the ultimate fate of just about everything we lug home from the mall opens on Friday in limited release in the United States.“Trashed,” directed by Candida Brady and starring Jeremy Irons, delves into the less festive side of consumerism and waste disposal — overflowing landfills in England, a toxic trash incinerator in Iceland, a hospital for children with birth defects in Vietnam.
(Jeannette Catsoulis briefly reviews the film in Friday’s Times.)
We sat down recently with Mr. Irons to talk trash. Following are excerpts, edited for brevity and clarity.
“Trashed” opens with a powerful image from Lebanon of a mountain of trash stacked high next to the ocean. Can you describe what it was like sitting on that trash mountain?
It was appalling. I’ve never been so grateful to leave the “set” of a film. It is certainly something to look at, but what people who see the film don’t experience is the smell of dead animals and wafting chemicals that make you gag. There are flies and fleas everywhere, stray dogs tripping over rubbish and yapping furiously at the scavenging birds circling overhead.
Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesJeremy Irons
What really made my stomach turn was watching the steady stream of evil-looking runoff oozing from the bottom of the mountain of garbage straight into the sea. It looks and smells like poison, and there are still fishermen out there, although far fewer than there used to be.
What fish they do catch certainly aren’t eating what you or I would care to eat. It was all just horrific, but what’s happening there is what happens if you do nothing, and it’s an illustration of what we are all doing only they haven’t bothered to hide it.
Has making “Trashed” led you to change any of your personal habits?
Yes. And I don’t consider myself an environmentalist or activist — I’m hardly an expert on green living. But what I’ve started doing since making the film is that I take packaging off at the point of purchase.
I consider myself quite capable of getting my tomatoes home safely without sitting on them, so why must they come packaged in plastic armor? And I think I can even get a pair of scissors home without chopping off my hand so I really don’t need that damned impenetrable plastic shell.
So I take it off and leave it on the counter and ask the person who sold it to me to deal with it themselves, because I didn’t want it in the first place. That way we push it back toward the manufacturers because the supermarkets will say: “Look, we can’t deal with all of this. Can you please provide less or take it back and reuse it?”
How do you think waste compares with climate change as an issue? Shouldn’t trash be an even more obvious problem that no one can dispute?
It seems pretty obvious when you see a landfill or a the insides of a seabird bursting with plastic fragments. But so much of that is so removed from our everyday lives that it’s a bit like climate change and Bangladesh — out of sight, out of mind.
And just like there are those who dispute the scientific evidence behind climate change, there are those who argue there is no connection between environmental toxins and health. In the documentary we talk to villagers in France living near an incinerator who saw cancer rates spike in their community. They took the government to court over it and were told that there was no proof of any connection. Just like some of the effects of climate change, some of these health effects are still down the pipeline.
Finally, there’s also a lot of money in trash, as there is in the fossil fuel industry. In places like New York, it’s not just a lack of organization that results in so little being recycled, it’s also that there is a huge amount of money in trash disposal. The people who are getting rid of our waste at the moment have a fine industry and have no incentive to change that.
What practical steps would you recommend to anyone who sees “Trashed” and wants to do something?
“Just like there are those who dispute the scientific evidence behind climate change, there are those who argue there is no connection between environmental toxins and health.”
Find out in an intelligent way what happens to the waste that leaves your home, and decide whether this is something you approve of. You might be surprised to learn that, especially around New York, much of it is incinerated in areas with poor, disadvantaged communities. Are you O.K. with the poor getting your toxic ash?
If you’re not, become a little motivated and write to your Congressman to ask if they think this is acceptable.
I also would like to encourage people to actually buy something. If you don’t have a reusable shopping bag, please get one and get a second for a friend or family member. There are kinds that fold up as small as a Ping Pong ball and you can keep it in your purse or briefcase and never have to take a pointless plastic bag home again.
And although you might get a few dirty looks, see what happens if you start taking the packaging off at the point of purchase. Retailers are very sensitive to their customers — you have the power to let them know what you do and don’t like, and they will listen.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making the documentary?
I didn’t realize that all this nondegradable rubbish and consumerism is in large part thanks to World War II and the massive war production apparatus that needed to be developed for peaceful purposes after the days of making weapons had ended. I was born in 1948, so it’s really only in my lifetime that this throwaway society has emerged.
I do remember a time before plastic bags when there was just a lot less of everything. I’m still a bit shocked when I walk down Main Street and see all this stuff in the windows. Who buys it all? How could you ever find the time to wear or use it all?
“All this nondegradable rubbish and consumerism is in large part thanks to World War II and the massive war production apparatus that needed to be developed for peaceful purposes after the days of making weapons had ended.”
Maybe I’m just getting old, and I know that buying things doesn’t make you happy. But I feel like there’s a new social mood, maybe because of the economic crisis, more of us are reflecting on what we really need and what we can do without.
The Christmas shopping season is in full swing. What would you like to say to people as they head out to the mall or load up their Amazon shopping cart?
Don’t buy people something they don’t need, let alone don’t want. Send them a kind message. I know we’re all supposed to keep on buying to get the economy going, but most of us don’t need very much — and in my opinion there is nothing like a lovely pair of warm socks or a good bar of soap.