Photo/IllutrationA mountain of plastic waste at an intermediate waste disposal company in Tokyo in November (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

The 1967 U.S. film “The Graduate,” which starred Dustin Hoffman, has an oddly mysterious early scene.

After graduating from college the protagonist, a young man named Benjamin Braddock returns home to a party celebrating his graduation. At the party he meets a man he has known for a long time. The man abruptly says, “Plastics,” and adds, “There’s a great future in plastics.”

These lines seem to be a metaphorical message from the writer.

Critic Tomohiro Machiyama argues the word plastics here is a metaphor for “fabrication, sham and fraud.” It also sounds like a dig at American middle-class consumers who shut their eyes to the ugly reality and feign to be happy, Machiyama contends in his book “Eiga no mikata ga wakaru hon” (A primer on how to appreciate movies).

For decades, plastics have been supporting the convenient lifestyles of modern society. But it has become impossible to keep the ugly reality behind mass consumption of these materials under the carpet.

The focus of attention is now on dirty plastic waste, such as used plastic bottles and vinyl products used in agriculture.

Many countries export enormous volumes of plastic waste as resources for recycling, but importers may not always be able to recycle them all. As environmentalists warn that much of the plastic waste ends up in the oceans, polluting marine ecosystems, an international organization has set out to restrict exports.

Plastic waste in the oceans is broken down into tiny, invisible pieces by waves and other natural forces, which then find their way into marine life.

The health hazards for those who eat fish have yet to be confirmed or clarified. But there is no denying the fact that the natural environment is now awash with this man-made material.

Japan also exports plastic waste to Thailand and elsewhere.

The movie, “The Graduate,” ends in the famous scene in which Ben crashes the wedding of the woman he loves. He and the bride flee the church together. It leaves the viewer with a sense of catharsis akin to throwing away all the past mistakes and the shackles of this world.

But there is no quick, refreshing solution to the problem of how to deal with the huge amount of waste of materials that have been woven so deeply into the fabric of our society.

The only viable approach to tackling the challenge is to make steady efforts to reduce the consumption of plastics.

--The Asahi Shimbun, May 19

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.