Figurative Garbage: Longing and Alienation in Ramin Bahrani’s Plastic Bag

Kyrstin Felts

Plastic Bag[1] is a short film narrated from the perspective of a plastic grocery bag. In about eighteen minutes, the film takes us on a journey from a bag’s first breath of life, when it is taken home from the supermarket by a woman whom the bag refers to as its maker, through its perils in a landfill after being thrown out, and then beyond the scope of human existence as it travels the world in search of love, belonging, and significance. Our protagonist ends up in the promised land of the Pacific Garbage Patch – known as the Vortex – after a long and exhaustive pilgrimage.

The film is not simply an advertisement for recycling, but an epic which follows the pattern of the classical hero’s voyage. Bahrani makes you care and cheer for the bag, hoping that it will find some solace in the Vortex. This is because the story being told is not, at its heart, one of climate change, or littering, or ecological disaster, even if these are at work in the film’s background. Instead it is both a sentimental and a realist exploration of loneliness which works by turning the bag into both an agent and an outlet for our longing.

The film literalizes a narrative tradition that ties meaning to objects. When direct language has failed us, we’ve turned to nature to illustrate our feelings, whether by invoking flora–putting down roots, blossoming love; fauna –the lone wolf, the free bird; or aether – calm seas and tempests. We’ve used these words to feel closer to the earth that bore us, especially in times when we have felt separated from it. It is no surprise that Romanticism was born in the same swell as the Industrial Revolution.

But now, it is not just traditional natural elements on which we draw for inspiration. What struck me when I first watched Plastic Bag was that this was not the first time I had seen a plastic bag in the wind used as a metaphor for aimlessness or wandering. It seems to be becoming more and more prevalent that we are throwing out our feelings with the trash. I, along with the YouTube comment section for this video, was immediately reminded of the famous bag scene from American Beauty, in which the bag represents beauty because of its nomadic nature. Or the Katy Perry song “Firework,” with its infamous first line, “do you ever feel like a plastic bag / drifting through the wind / wanting to start again.”

The trope is part of a larger category of the romanticization of trash in general, and it has even been subverted for humour, such as in a memorable Ikea commercial[2] which shows us a discarded lamp looking pitiful in the rain and then mocks the viewer for feeling bad for it.

The incorporation of garbage into the world upon which we draw for meaning-making practices can tell us two different things. The first is that, rather than being separate from the so-called “natural world,” trash is as much a part of that landscape as Frost’s birches or Baudelaire’s albatross. The second is that not only are we longing for where we came from, we are also longing for that which we have created and from which we now feel isolated. So though we are the maker of the bag, we have become alienated from it, and we have indeed turned it into something which operates separately from ourselves. Thus, we have had to go the long way around through symbolism and simile in order to find it again.


[1] FUTURESTATESTV. “FUTURESTATES | Plastic Bag | ITVS”. YouTube video, 18:32. Posted October 2010.

[2] videoagerbeek. “ikea lamp.” YouTube video, 1:00. Posted January 2006.