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In ‘The Story of Plastic,’ Michael O’Heaney uses film as way of calling world to action

The Story of Plastic, A film by Deia Schlosberg
Michael O'Heaney
O’Heaney

Since “The Story of Stuff,” a 20-minute animated documentary short about global overconsumption, first garnered millions of views on YouTube 17 years ago, it has grown into a full-scale media project, producing animated, cause-focused documentary content. 

The Story of Stuff Project is led by Michael O’Heaney, who has served as executive director since the project’s inception shortly after the viral success of “The Story of Stuff.” At 5:30 p.m. today in Smith Wilkes Hall, the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative will screen “The Story of Plastic,” the project’s first full-length documentary feature — still made up of mostly animated scenes.

“The idea behind doing the animation was (that)  people are overwhelmed by real images of pollution and poverty, and people’s typical psychological reaction is to shut down when they are confronted with that content,” O’Heaney said. “We wanted to use the animation as a way to sort of illustrate the issues without having people shut down. … What we were trying to do is sort of lower the center of gravity from people’s heads to their hearts.”

“The Story of Plastic” presents a cohesive timeline of, well, the story of plastic; examining the key contributors to the plastic pollution crisis, breaking down widespread myths, and diving into the life cycle of plastic from fossil fuel extraction to landfill. The film also focuses on the growing movement to fight back against plastic pollution and the corporations prolonging the crisis.

The film was first released in 2019 and was shown on Discovery Channel the next year, eventually leading to an Emmy Award for best writing in a documentary — the project’s first Emmy.

But what remains of the utmost importance to the project, and to O’Heaney, is ensuring that every film his organization produces is informing audiences about the crises the world is facing, while packaging those messages in a way that is inviting and encourages people to learn and take action on their own, instead of attempting to scare people into caring.

“I think, at a very intuitive level, people understand the challenges that we face,” O’Heaney said. “I mean, the weather is weird. People see it, they feel it, they know it. They know it’s hotter, they know it’s raining. … So if they know, why aren’t they doing anything? The no. 1 reason people gave for why they weren’t doing anything was no one had ever asked them. That’s what we see as our charge, is asking people to do something.”

Ultimately, O’Heaney said that “The Story of Plastic” serves to teach everyone, even Chautauquans who may think they’re experts on plastic, that there is always more to be learned — and more to be done.

In addition to tonight’s screening of “The Story of Plastic,” O’Heaney and the Climate Change Initiative will be showing a few shorts from the project’s Solving Plastics Series on Thursday, all of which serve the same purpose as today’s screening: to inform audiences about the plastic pollution crisis, and to invite them to step up and make a change.

“If you want to understand where all of the plastic in our lives has come from, and where it goes when it leaves our homes, our businesses, (and) our communities, this is the best look out there at that,” O’Heaney said. “It’s a challenging film, in that the story is sometimes dark and difficult, and there is a lot of injustice that runs through that story. But it’s told through the words of people in the world who are trying to rewrite that story. … So, it’s not a rom-com, but I think at the end of it, people are left with a sense of hope and momentum.”

Tags : Chautauqua Climate Change InitiativeenvironmentMichael O'HeaneyThe Story of PlasticThe Story of StuffYoutube
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The author Jeremy Kohler

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