Racing to Zero: Documentary on Waste in America


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By E.Q. Lam
December 11, 2011

For more than a year, filmmakers have been laying the groundwork for Racing to Zero, a documentary on how Americans can reduce their waste to almost nothing. They have researched the issues as well as solutions. They have recruited experts, including a “garbologist.” They have produced a trailer capturing what the film is about. And now, they are ready to start full production in January.

A Kickstarter campaign to raise initial funds has achieved nearly $7,000 in pledges, with 26 days remaining to reach its $8,000 goal. Producer Diana Fuller says she is confident the 60-day campaign will be a success. The project will be funded only if it achieves $8,000 in pledges by January 6.

“What is really exciting are the people coming to help,” Fuller says.

She says people are contributing not only money but also their comments about the subject. By involving supporters of the documentary in the process, they develop a vested interest and consciousness about the issues, Fuller says. That is part of her vision to create a “wave” of cumulative action against waste.

“This is not about making a film; this is about a consuming passion,” Fuller says. “… I think it’s wonderful this project involves as many people as possible.”

Film Focus on Solutions

Last year, the United States created 250 million tons of trash, a large part of which ended up in landfills, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. As the trash decomposes in landfills, it emits methane gas, a toxic greenhouse gas that causes 23 times more environmental damage than carbon dioxide (CO2). See what happens to trash in the film’s trailer:

Films dealing with trash have focused on the sheer magnitude of the problem of disposing of unwanted things. Racing to Zero will look beyond that to solutions by tracking efforts (for example, at the city level) to reduce garbage. The original intention of the film, then called Trash24, was to show what happens to garbage in a 24-hour day. Thus, renaming the project Racing to Zero presents a broader artistic canvas to work with, Fuller says. To her, “racing to zero” means diverting as much as possible from landfills through strategies such as inventive repurposing, recycling, and composting.

For Fuller, an arts administrator, this film is a way to present all kinds of information in a directed way. “The thing that came to me was that there’s so much. It’s such a huge thing, and people tend to think, ‘Oh well, what can I do about it?’ … It seemed to me an awful lot of people—including myself—didn’t know the answers,” she says.

The film will educate viewers about where the trash comes from and where it goes—what Fuller envisions as “a tale of revelation, hope, understanding, and responsibility.” The challenge for the artists involved in making Racing to Zero is to present the issues and solutions in an attractive way for viewers to take to heart.

“We want every person to get something out of this, to make a change,” says Fuller, who hopes the film will help change the culture of waste by opening people’s eyes. “People in this country have never really broached the subject of ‘When did I start leaving a trail of waste? Why did the minute I get out of bed did I start leaving a trail of waste?’”

The Value of Garbage

Racing to Zero seeks to inform people in a new way about their relationship to trash.

“I thought I knew all about recycling. … I started realizing I don’t know,” says Christopher Beaver, the film’s director, who has documented other environmental issues. “If you think you know about recycling or garbage, think again.”

One fact which caught Beaver’s attention in research for the film is that some 50 million Americans suffer from food insecurity that could be remedied simply with the edible food that Americans throw away.

William Rathje, an anthropologist and archaeologist, can provide even more insight into how Americans handle waste. Rathje, currently a consulting professor at Stanford University, has studied trash since 1973 and pioneered the academic discipline of “garbology,” which looks at trash as telling remnants of society. He is one of the experts who will be featured in the film.

“One of the most important reasons for Racing to Zero is a goal: It sets a goal for people,” Rathje says. “The problem is that once you recycle, you lose the goal, because recycling is the goal and you’re doing that, and that’s the end of that. And you don’t think about doing more and more and more. And the concept of the documentary Racing to Zero is to alert people to the fact that there’s a particular goal … . What they’re doing is great, but there’s a lot more to be done. The goal is to recycle and reduce and reuse everything to the point that there’s no garbage.”

Through decades of study, Rathje has observed consumer behavior which he calls the Fast Lane Syndrome: People eat what is quick and easy (prepackaged fast food), leaving fresh food untouched to spoil.

“When people go shopping, most people know what’s good for them, and so they buy fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, etcetera,” Rathje says. “But they also know what their lifestyle is, so they buy frozen dinners, etcetera. By the end of the week, the frozen dinner trays and head of lettuce are in the garbage.”

Rathje’s first principle of waste is to do what one does on a regular basis: “It’s very important for people to follow their normal pattern of behavior,” he says.

As examples, he recounts studies in the 1970s, when beef and sugar shortages propelled people to stock up on related products. But people did not know how to store or use them properly, or they would buy specialty items such as hot dog buns for barbecues or paint for home improvement projects and not use all of them—resulting in more waste as the items were thrown out, Rathje explains.

“If I’ve cooked something I’ve cooked a dozen times before, I have no problems. Stick with your normal behavior and you’ll waste a lot less,” he says.

Another nugget of knowledge Rathje offers is that while aluminum makes up only one or two percent of recycling programs, its value can pay for 40 to 60 percent of the programs. “Aluminum is one of the few recyclables where you get the money back,” Rathje says, explaining that bauxite is expensive to turn into aluminum. “Aluminum is really the workhorse of recycling in America.”

Calling for Change

Racing to Zero’s filmmakers are adamant that the film be personal and present solutions that any ordinary person can immediately implement. “I think education is incredibly important to all of us to be able to change,” Fuller says. “We have to know that we each create 4.3 pounds a day of garbage. … Industry itself has to be made to—if it doesn’t want to—understand the threat to the consumer that it makes through irresponsible manufacturing. … But it also is in our hands to start changing these patterns.”

Fuller says she hopes that the film will make consumers more aware at the point of purchase, in the store. The amount of packaging around a product creates more waste than the product itself.

“Think carefully about what we might not use in both food and other things,” Fuller says. “The packaging alone is going to last longer than the product. That’s what’s nuts.”

Rathje adds, “When you buy things at the store, you need to be a bit aware of whether it’s recyclable or reusable, or you’re buying a package that reduces the amount of garbage that is generated by your purchase.”

He gives the example of buying concentrated orange juice, which comes in a relatively small package, rather than the big plastic or glass containers of orange juice.

Unlike other environmental issues, garbage is at the doorstep of every individual, says Beaver, but so are the solutions. One person can have a “huge impact” on recycling or waste management, he says.

“If everybody would pull as much responsibility as they could for themselves, that would [help] the racing toward zero. Recycling is one of those places where you can make a difference,” Beaver says. “In terms of recycling, there is a lot that an individual can do. … And then that will lead to other things. People will say, ‘I wonder what else I’m wasting.’”

Fuller echoes the stance that, with regard to waste management, people can have an immediate effect on the solution. “Every person can make a little bit of difference,” she says. “… That becomes the collective reparation. But you can’t change till you understand. You can’t prepare if you don’t know what you’re preparing for. It is a real puzzle: We [Americans] consume more than any other place on earth, … so what are we going to do with it? It has to go both ways—the government, institutional side—right down to the individual, the collective, the block-by-block count.”

For Fuller, the process of producing the film is as important as the end product, if people are engaged. For Beaver, the possibilities do not end with completion of the film: “I hope it’s going to ignite the imagination of anybody who sees it to go further, … to come up with more and better solutions.”

To back this project by pledging at least $1, go to its Kickstarter campaign page.

Check out more articles by E.Q. Lam.

© 2011 SCGH, LLC.

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