Official Presenting Sponsor of the
2018 Sundance Film Festival

NO IMPACT MAN has Impact, Man


“Caffe Ibis is committed to providing you with an unbeatable fresh and full flavored cup while engaging in environmental and socially responsible practices. Caffe Ibis has been designated as a Green Business.”

So reads the side of my coffee cup from a Main Street café. Of course, it also says, “Made with 10% post-consumer recycled fiber.” Only 10%? Does that even make up for the cost of collecting, transporting, and processing the recyclable post-consumer trash that went into making the cup? Add to that the plastic SOLO lid and the sleeve to protect my precious hands—both containing exactly 0% post-consumer recycled fiber—and you start to wonder who, exactly, designated Caffe Ibis a “Green Business.” International Paper, perhaps?

I don’t mean to single out Ibis, but it just so happens that their coffee is fueling me while I post about a documentary I saw last night, NO IMPACT MAN, which follows a Manhattan couple as they try to reduce their environmental impact to zero within twelve months. Now I can’t help but see wastefulness everywhere. This morning, for instance, I combined two mini-boxes of Fruit Loops into a Styrofoam bowl, filled it with mass-produced milk from a plastic container, and ate it with a disposable plastic spoon. Um, oops?

That’s the point of NO IMPACT MAN—to force people to consider their environmental footprint—and yet the film isn’t nearly as preachy as you’d expect, given the subject. Speaking at the Sundance Channel’s Green Room, co-director Justin Schein described his film as “a character-driven reaction” to AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Maybe so, but the more apt reference point would be SUPERSIZE ME. Both films overcome their gimmickry by focusing instead on the larger issue (wastefulness and obesity, respectively) as well as on the projects’ personal impact: Morgan Spurlock’s month-long McDonald’s binge causes his vegan wife (a chef, no less) to worry for his health, while Colin and Michelle Beavan’s year-long project leads to several disputes that largely stem from differences in character: Colin, an author, is an environmentally conscious vegetarian; Michelle, a reporter for Business Week, is a meat eater who’s obsessed with high fashion and reality TV.

You can only imagine, then, what happens when they get rid of the television and renounce anything with packaging, food produced more than 250 miles away, new clothes, paper products (including toilet paper), and eventually heat and electricity. Add to that: Michelle’s desire for a second child—their first is in (cloth) diapers during the film—and Colin’s desire to stick with one; an avalanche of publicity that inevitably leads to a widespread backlash; and even criticism for not going far enough (one man says that Michelle’s job working for a “capitalist” rag invalidates the entire project).

So even though Colin comes across as self-righteous at times, the film’s focus on “the ‘Odd Couple’ situation,” as co-director Laura Gabbert put it to me, saves the documentary from being the Beavans’ soapbox. At the same time, it succeeded in heightening my awareness.

In the theater, as I headed to the exit, I was blocked by two women who had stopped to finish off their coffee cups—which they then tossed into a full garbage can. I was no better. After the film, I went home and dialed up, please forgive me, Domino’s Pizza. But I felt really, really guilty about it, if that makes any difference.