Posted July 20, 2008
Blue Vinyl (2002) http://www.bluevinyl.org/ , by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold begins and is centered around the blue vinyl residing of the exterior of Judith’s parents’ modest suburban house. I watched the film at my New Orleans home on the Sundance channel in summer 2007.
The film tells a story about the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from the plant to the consumer. It focuses on workers and surrounding communities’ exposure to toxic chemicals from plants during the production phase. Judy travels from home to Lake Charles and Baton Rouge Louisiana, to Italy and back searching out the truth that corporate executives knew all along…. PVC makes workers sick, but petrochemical companies hide that so they can rake in the money. By the time the public knows, the corporations are awash in profit (and capitalists can reinvest that profit into other industries).
Blue Vinyl is a fun documentary. It makes use of animated sequences, has good cinematography, and employs the best comedic techniques of a skilled muckraker. It delivers on the information. I knew Louisiana’s chemical corridor was vast, but had no idea that almost half of PVC plants in the US are in Louisiana. The documentary also finds hard targets: the petrochemical industry, corporate managers, the Vinyl Institute (industry trade association), and even Habitat for Humanity. As a result of the film’s stand, in March 2004, builders broke ground on the first PVC free Habitat for Humanity house in New Orleans. Oh, and the film has one of my favorite lawyers, Monique Hardin of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
The political weakness is the film’ consumer-oriented approach. Hefland admits that affordability is a key selling point of vinyl, and that the alternative to vinyl siding she used at her parents house was not affordable. Despite this, she reverts to the consumer choice mantra. The organizers of “My House is your House” http://www.myhouseisyourhouse.org/, a non-profit set up at behest of the filmmakers- engage in corporate campaigns, but their main focus- and the focus of the film- is primarily on making the information available. Increasing the information available to consumers is useful, but consumer protection under capitalist “choice” has obvious limits.
Judy highlights some innovative alternatives by visiting a green building materials conference in California. Unless and until these “alternative” building methods become the new standard (through legislation and building codes) they will remain obscured in a certain California niche of those who can afford it.
In the film Helfand shows us that chemical workers are often the most at risk. First the workers get sick, then though collective action (union and/or class action lawsuits) they raise the profile and hopefully enact contract and policy changes. In parallel, the adjacent (often low income) community engages in calls for reduced emissions, careful monitoring, and maybe even plant closures. But even this is not enough. A very small percentage of the population works in a PVC plant or lives in the adjoining communities. And the petrochemical industry is tough. Collective approaches need to be more explicit: stronger workplace protections, tougher regulations (OSHA enforcement and stronger EPA), and an outright ban on PVC.
Background information/ research A-
Entertainment Value B+
Political Conclusions D
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