Tuesday 14 May 2013

How Jeremy Irons saved us

Last week I encountered the actor Jeremy Irons in the flesh. With his slacks tucked into black boots and his thespian swagger, he was a man to capture an audience. What's more, he might just have changed my life for the better. You think I exaggerate? It started with a trip to the cinema to watch Mr Irons' documentary Trashed about the toxic effects of consumer waste. Afterwards, the audience had the chance to discuss the film with Mr Irons and the writer/directer Candida Brady. 
Jeremy Irons by a mountain of rubbish in Lebanon (in 'Trashed')
Jeremy Irons contemplates rubbish on the shores of Lebanon
Credit: Laurence Richards   © Blenheim Films

It proved an evening of contrast and emotion: stunning scapes of the natural world juxtaposed against visceral images of rubbish piled high on Mediterranean beaches, Vietnamese children deformed by exposure to Agent Orange and sea life crippled by the consumption of plastic. All of this coated by Mr Irons' mellifluous voice, a rousing soundtrack and the sensation that I had just witnessed something that would change my habits forever.

I like to think of myself as conscientious person - I recycle, I carry a foldaway shopper in my handbag and I wash my dishes with Ecover. However, I am not sure I have ever felt so deeply the importance of recycling or appreciated the scale of damage our society is inflicting on the natural world. A hundred years ago, human waste consisted largely of natural materials - wood, wool, paper - but now we are throwing away plastic at a gargantuan rate. Whereas natural materials break down rapidly, it can take centuries for plastic to decompose.

In the world's ocean gyres (areas with circular currents), hundreds of square miles have been transformed into a soupy mixture of saltwater and plastic. Inevitably sea creatures consume the plastic and suffer immediate effects, or more insidious declines in fertility. It is believed that killer whales (at top of the food chain) could die out in our lifetime. "I am sort of depressed about the sea," Mr Irons told us after the film, "in a big, big way."
Candida Brady and Jeremy Irons on the set of Trashed
Credit: Laurence Richards   © Blenheim Films

Bringing it closer to home, our excessive waste also threatens to have an impact on our own health. The film made a strong case against landfill sites and the use of waste-to-energy incinerators, some of which were shown to release cancer-causing dioxins into the atmosphere. Agent Orange - a powerful weedkiller used by the US during the Vietnamese war to destroy jungle cover - also contains the compound dioxin. The Vietnamese believe the chemical is responsible for high instances of genetic defects in areas that were sprayed. In a powerful scene from the film, Mr Irons stands in a home for some of the children affected, his eyes lambent with suppressed emotion.

At the end of the film, Mr Irons' voiceover declared that we were at a "tipping point". Still in a state of shock, I interpreted this as a negative development, but others in the audience saw room for hope. They were inspired by San Francisco's drive for zero waste, as well as recycling plants that have created new jobs and a way of managing our reliance upon plastic. A man sitting in the front row told us he worked in waste management and admitted he learnt more from the documentary than he had from working in the industry for 10 years.

The main thrust of our discussion post-film was how to change opinion, just as campaigners did with seatbelt-wearing and drink-driving. The European Union is currently looking at banning non-recyclable plastics, including the ubiquitous plastic bag, but grassroots support is also needed. Ms Brady is showing her film in schools, in the hope that our children will build a more environmentally conscious society. As for me? During a shopping trip at the weekend, I firmly rebutted all attempts to put my purchases in plastic bags. "Have you not heard about this film called Trashed?" I asked one bemused retailer.

Mr Irons - on whose celebrity Ms Brady intended to "hang" the film - said he got involved because he thought the subject was "terrible, but also curable". Let's hope we can find some alternative medicine before we tip over into terminal decline.

This post has been reproduced on the Trashed website.

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