Lessons from The Story of Stuff

by Gan Pei Ling / 18 August 2010 © The Nut Graph

HAVE you ever wondered where all your stuff comes from, and where they end up after you throw them out? I do, and environmentalist Annie Leonard does, too. That was the reason she created The Story of Stuff.

The video became an online hit soon after its December 2007 release. In 2009, The New York Times reported that thousands of schools, churches and other institutions in the US have used the video to get people to rethink the environmental, social and economic impact of mindless consumerism.

Leonard’s team has since released new videos like The Story of Bottled Water in March 2010 and The Story of Cosmetics in July 2010.

One may argue that her videos are US-centric, but I think Leonard has achieved what environmentalists previously failed to do. She simplified the structural problems prevalent in the materials economy into a 20-minute video that even a nine-year-old child can understand: that our economies are structured based on the false assumption that we can have “infinite growth on a planet with finite resources”.

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A former Greenpeace employee and steering committee member of Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Leonard spent almost two decades investigating environmental health and waste issues. She has visited factories and dumps in Asia and Africa.

She has been giving talks and advocating for the need for people to consume mindfully for years. However, she was shocked to discover that nobody understood what she was talking about when she gave her usual talk during a training programme at Rockwood Leadership Institute in 2005.

That was when Leonard realised she needed to simplify her vocabulary and do away with sentences like “paradigm shift in relation to materials”. She redid her story from the beginning and created The Story of Stuff.

Since then, millions of people have watched the film, and it has been translated to more than 15 languages, according to the Los Angeles Times. She has also released a book of the same name this year.


Additionally, Leonard has successfully explained academic terms like “planned obsolescence”, “manufactured demand” and “externalised cost” in layperson terms in her videos.

Planned obsolescence is another word for ‘designed for the dump’. It means they actually make stuff that is designed to be useless as quickly as possible so we will chuck it and go buy a new one.

“It’s obvious with stuff like plastic bags and coffee cups, but now it’s even big stuff: mops, DVDs, cameras, barbeques even, everything!” Leonard exclaims in exasperation in The Story of Stuff.

“Manufactured demand is a desire for something that didn’t just develop naturally but was stoked by some outside force. [It’s] a core strategy of today’s consumer economy.

“In order to get people to keep buying stuff, when most of us have plenty of stuff already, companies manufacture demand [through advertising] so we feel like we need ever more and ever newer clothes, cars, toasters, furniture, shoes … everything.

“I mean, it’s not like any of us just woke up and said, ‘I need, really need, a new cell phone to replace my perfectly functional one’,” explains Leonard in her footnoted-script in The Story of Bottled Water.


However, Leonard’s videos have stirred up controversy in the US. Conservatives have attacked her for being anti-capitalism and being a Karl Marx in ponytail.

Leonard refutes in an interview with Elle magazine that she is anti-capitalism: “I’m anti a system that’s poisoning us and protecting the wealthy over the poor.”

I think Leonard tells her stories from people’s perspective, and elucidates how corporations and governments have put profit over people over the years. The powers-that-be are uncomfortable with the messages in Leonard’s videos precisely because these messages challenge the status quo.

(Pic by lusi / sxc.hu)

Instead of encouraging people to buy more and more stuff so corporations can make more profit, Leonard asks people to be mindful of their consumption habits. Instead of encouraging people to conform to societal beauty standards by buying cosmetics, Leonard reminds the public to be aware of the toxic chemicals in them.

The Story of Stuff website contains materials and resources for people to launch a campaign or hold a screening and discussion in their community.

What Leonard is doing may be perceived as dangerous to corporations and governments. Through the new media, she and her team are empowering the public to mobilise and organise, for example, to reclaim their rights by demanding for clean tap water from governments and safe cosmetics from corporations.

This would, of course, translate to “trouble” for some corporations and governments. But to be fair, The Story of Stuff team is merely trying to hold governments and corporations accountable. And they ought to be credited for inspiring people into action, even if it’s the act of rethinking how we consume.

Although Annie Leonard often reveals awful stuff people don’t want to know in her videos, Gan Pei Ling is looking forward to reading her book and watching the next video installment, The Story of Electronics.

The plastic menace

by Gan Pei Ling / 20 July 2010 © The Nut Graph

“IT’s not sexy, that’s why nobody cares,” a friend comments on why few Malaysians are concerned about the problem of plastic waste even though it threatens the environment that sustains us. “It’s sexier to talk about renewable energy and green buildings than how we handle our trash,” the friend adds.

That is until some of our state and local governments took the initiative to launch No Plastic Bag Day campaigns. Penang was the first to launch the campaign in July 2009. Those without reusable bags have to pay 20 sen for a plastic bag when they shop on Mondays. In January 2010, the campaign was extended to include Tuesdays and Wednesdays. At the same time, Selangor launched its own No Plastic Bag Day campaign on Saturdays. Subsequently, the Miri and Sibu municipal councils in Sarawak, as well as Kota Kinabalu city hall and six other districts in Sabah announced similar campaigns.

How effective are these campaigns? Can they really help save the planet? And what can be done to make these campaigns more popular?

Campaigns’ effectiveness

The idea of banning plastic bags to reduce its use is not new. In 2002, Ireland imposed a 15 euro cent tax on plastic bags, and its use dropped over 90% within five months. In the same year, Bangladesh banned polyethylene bags in Dhaka as the bags were choking the drainage system and causing floods in the capital.

China banned plastic bags in 2008. A year later, it was reported that the country saved the equivalent of 1.6 million tonnes of oil and 40 billion bags. Other countries that have introduced additional charges or tax on plastic bags include Rwanda, Eritrea and Switzerland.

In Selangor, the use of plastic bags was reduced by five million in the first four months of its campaign. In Penang, the amount was one million bags over the same period.

(Pic by roberto / sxc.hu)

Despite such reductions in plastic bag use, Ireland’s scheme has been criticised for triggering a 400% increase in the purchase of bin liners and greater reliance on paper bags. Contrary to the popular belief that paper bags are more eco-friendly, they actually require more energy to manufacture and cause more pollution during production. This probably explains why Penang and Selangor did not compel or encourage retailers to replace plastic with paper bags.

Convincing the public

Asking consumers to sacrifice requires some doing, especially when Malaysians are so used to free plastic bags that some consumers mistake it as a “right”. Some consumer associations, for example, claimed that the 20 sen charge was decided without their consultation and was therefore unfair.

Perhaps as a public relations measure to help consumers make the switch, Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng announced that the state would use the funds collected from the plastic bag charges to eradicate hardcore poverty.

In Selangor, participating retailers are required to use the funds to conduct corporate social responsibility programmes. The Selangor government encourages these retailers to conduct programmes relating to the environment.

Perhaps one other way to compel consumers to change their lifestyle is to lead them to the Pacific Garbage Patch that stretches several hundred miles in the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific Garbage Patch is the largest of five plastic garbage patches in our oceans. For now, there is no way to clean up these garbage patches, scientists say.

As a result of our consumption and disposal of plastic, scientists estimate there are six times more plastic than plankton in the “continent”. Trapped by circulating ocean currents, the plastic we throw away are choking fishes and seabirds to death as the marine animals mistake them for food. Every year, more than 100,000 marine animals such as dolphins, whales and sea turtles are killed because of plastic bags.

Plastic waste found on the beach in Kuantan (Pic by Carolyn Lau and Ng Sek San)

If we don’t care about marine life, here’s another thought that should give us pause. Plastics absorb pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as cancer-causing PCBs, and pesticides.

“These particles are ingested by marine life and pass into our food chain. We all do it: we throw this stuff, this packaging, what I call dumb plastic, into the bin, and we think it has gone. But it comes back to us one way or another. Some of it ends up on our dinner plates,” British adventurer and environmentalist David de Rothschild tells The Guardian.

In 2009, Rothschild sailed to the patch in a vessel made entirely of plastics called Plastiki. The billionaire banking heir has definitely found a way to make the issue of plastic waste seem sexier.

Considering some of the gruesome facts surrounding plastic bags pollution, 20 sen per bag is a really small price to pay.

Other solutions

The Malaysian Plastic Manufacturers Association has proposed to the Penang government to give out free oxo-biodegradable plastic bags so that consumers can still enjoy free plastic bags on campaign days.

However, oxo-biodegradable plastic bags are not 100% degradable. They can only degrade in the presence of sunlight and oxygen. Those that end up in landfills would not degrade at all. Therefore, reusable bags are still the best option.

For certain, most of our plastic waste comes from packaging that is often unnecessary. Malaysian consumers cannot hope to rely solely on governments to resolve our plastic waste problem. After all, in a marketplace driven by profit, consumer demand and lifestyle are often much more powerful than government regulations.

As Leo Hickman writes in The Guardian on 11 Aug 2009: “[Plastic bags] are the ultimate symbol of our throwaway culture.”

No Plastic Bag Day campaigns are merely the first step towards stimulating the public to rethink the impact of our “use and throw” habit on the very environment that sustains us.

Gan Pei Ling believes reusable bags are the best solution to our plastic bag dilemma, but would like to remind readers to wash their reusable bags frequently in the interest of hygiene.

Related post: Plastic matters