Entertainment Awash with Plastic Pollution, New Report Shows

First-Ever Analysis of Single-Use Plastics Portrayed in Popular TV Sets the Stage to ‘Flip the Script’ on Unnecessary Waste 

November 2, 2021, Hollywood, CA – A new report by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center sets the stage to “flip the script” on how single-use plastics are portrayed in film, television, and media. The first-ever analysis of the portrayal and prevalence of single-use plastics and reusable alternatives in popular scripted television shows found them awash with plastic pollution, modeling a behavior contradictory to the industry’s oft-purported values. The report, launched today at Web Summit 2021, concludes with recommendations including a call for content creators to minimize depictions of single-use plastics and instead consciously model the use of package-free or reusable items. 

Commissioned by Plastic Pollution Coalition, with support from the Break Free From Plastic movement and Plastic Solutions Fund, the research closely examined 32 popular television shows from the 2019-2020 season. Key findings include: 

  • Single-use plastics were common on scripted TV, with an average of 28 single-use plastic items per episode. Single-use items appeared in every single episode
  • 93% of single-use plastic items were not disposed of on screen, contributing to the false narrative of “magically disappearing trash”—the idea that plastic items simply go away on their own, without acknowledging their harm to people and the planet
  • When disposal was shown, the items were highly likely to be littered (80% of disposed items).
  • Only 8 episodes (13% of the sample) included any dialogue about plastic or related issues.
  • Single-use plastics are the primary source of plastic pollution on the planet, with Americans alone discarding more than 30 million tons of plastic a year. With 99% of plastics made from fossil fuels, the climate and environmental justice implications are significant. The report suggests that instead of portraying the unfortunate reality of excessive plastic use, films and TV shows could help change society’s throwaway culture by modeling life with less single-use plastic

“We are shaped and formed by what we watch. 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,” says Dianna Cohen, Co-Founder and CEO, Plastic Pollution Coalition. 

In tandem with the report’s findings, Plastic Pollution Coalition has launched a multiyear initiative to “Flip the Script on Plastics.”Putting into practice the old adage that life imitates art, Plastic Pollution Coalition intends to change behaviors in homes and workplaces across the globe by building a coalition of actors, writers, and showrunners in the entertainment industry committed to modeling the systemic change needed to solve the plastic pollution crisis. Plastic Pollution Coalition is engaging the entertainment industry in both on- and off-screen efforts; some notable members of Plastic Pollution Coalition include 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. 

Dana Weinstein, M.A., Project Specialist at USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center: “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.” 

Jack Bender, television producer and director on Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, Lost, and Mr. Mercedes: “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. 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. I am honored to be a part of this work.” 

Mandy Moore, actress, singer, and songwriter: “Showing the world we need, where fruits and vegetables are free of packaging and other foods and beverages are served in non-toxic, non-plastic reusable materials, is critical. This initiative is an exciting way to shift the popular culture about the role plastic plays in our lives.” 

Ed Begley, Jr., 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.” 

Fran Drescher, actress, U.S. Public Diplomacy Envoy, founder of Cancer Schmancer, and president of the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA): “As President of SAG-AFTRA and President of Cancer Schmancer, I am excited about Plastic Pollution Coalition’s Flip the Script initiative; I am creating a seminal Green Council to clean up Hollywood and reduce our industry’s carbon footprint. We must be forward thinking and always consider innovations’ long-term impacts on the health of the planet.” 

Download the full report here

About Plastic Pollution Coalition: Plastic Pollution Coalition is a growing global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries working toward a more just, equitable world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and the environment. 

About the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center: The Norman Lear Center is a nonpartisan research and public policy center that studies the social, political, economic and cultural impact of entertainment on the world. It is based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.           

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MEDIA CONTACT: Jen Fela, Director of Communications, jen@plasticpollutioncoalition.org