Research Aims to 'Flip the Script' on Single-Use Plastics in Hollywood

A new entertainment-industry campaign wants to help the environment by changing the portrayal of plastic pollution on TV.

A tv screen with content on it of someone throwing away a plastic bottle.

Nora Carol Photography / Getty Images

In the 1950s, cigarettes weren’t filthy, hazardous, or gross. They were glamorous. That’s thanks in large part to Hollywood, which actively promoted smoking on television and in movies. In fact, at one point, two out of three top movie stars appeared in cigarette advertisements while also smoking on screen, according to the anti-smoking program Tobacco Stops With Me. Even in the modern era, it says, nearly two-thirds of PG-13 movies feature smoking or other tobacco use.

“Population surveys, real-world studies and experimental evidence have proven that kids are more likely to smoke when they see tobacco use on screen,” reads the program’s website. “Smoking behaviors in the movies are mirrored by young audiences, putting them at substantial risk of addiction, disease, and premature death.”

Of course, it’s not just smoking that Hollywood sells. It’s also sex, drugs, and violence. And also, single-use plastics, finds a new report by the University of Southern California (USC) Annenberg Norman Lear Center, which says Hollywood can help fight climate change by showing fewer single-use plastics on screen.

“Decades of research show that scripted entertainment plays a powerful role in shaping our social norms, attitudes, and behavior on a wide variety of health and social issues. Thus, entertainment can be a highly effective medium for modeling sustainable practices and systems,” Dana Weinstein, project specialist at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, said in a press release.

Commissioned by the Plastic Pollution Coalition, with support from the Break Free From Plastic movement and the Plastic Solutions Fund, USC’s report is based on an analysis of 32 popular television shows that aired during the 2019-2020 season—every single episode of which featured single-use plastics, according to researchers, who counted an average of 28 single-use plastic items appearing on screen per episode.

The report found that 93% of single-use plastic items on TV were not disposed of on screen, and that 80% of items that were disposed of on screen were littered. Researchers say that’s problematic because it contributes to a false narrative of “magically disappearing trash” without acknowledging the harm that plastic waste causes to people and the planet. In fact, only 13% of TV programming—eight episodes—featured dialogue about plastic or related issues.

“We are shaped and formed by what we watch,” says Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of the Plastic Pollution Coalition. “Media has the power to reimagine the world and blaze a trail to a regenerative, reusable, refillable, healthy, thriving plastic-free world for all living beings, if only we commit and act now.”

To that end, the Plastics Pollution Coalition has launched a new multi-year initiative that will seek to change the portrayal of single-use plastics in film, television, and media. The “Flip the Script on Plastics” campaign will build a coalition of actors, writers, and showrunners in the entertainment industry who are committed to modeling the systemic changes that are needed in order to reduce plastic waste, which in the United States alone totals over 30 million tons per year.

The “Flip the Script on Plastics” coalition already has a number of notable members, including Sergio Arau, Yareli Arizmendi, Ed Begley Jr., Jack Bender, Jeff Bridges, Fran Drescher, Jeff Franklin, Jake Kasdan, Mandy Moore, Kyra Sedgwick, and Alfre Woodard, among others. Together, they’ll encourage on-screen efforts like more sustainability-focused storylines, as well as off-screen efforts like reducing single-use plastics on set.

“It has been many years since we all laughed at the punchline ‘plastics’ in The Graduate. But now it’s no longer funny as we have learned how it is strangling our planet,” says Bender, a television producer and director on Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Lost, and Mr. Mercedes. “Movies and TV shows tell stories and model behaviors that have the power to deeply influence popular culture. Through storytelling and on set, this initiative can help transform and measurably reduce the use of single-use plastic in the entertainment industry.”

Echoes Begley Jr., an Emmy award-winning actor and environmental activist, “Helping audiences to stop seeing plastic pollution as normal is critical as the world seeks to move away from fossil fuels—of which single-use plastics are made. This initiative couldn’t be more timely as people are realizing the injustice and inequity of plastic pollution and the climate crisis, and world leaders are being pushed to act.”

View Article Sources
  1. "Movies Promoting Tobacco Use." Tobacco Stops With Me.

  2. "Flip The Script On Plastics." University of Southern California Annenberg Norman Lear Center.