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Microplastic Madness

“​Microplastic Madness - Brooklyn kids take on plastic pollution” is an inspirational and optimistic take on the local and global plastic pollution crisis as told through a refreshing urban youth point of view with a powerful take action message.

Fifth graders from PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn - a community on the frontline of Climate Change that was severely impacted by Superstorm Sandy- spent 2 years investigating plastic pollution. Taking on the roles of citizen scientists, community leaders, and advocates, these 10-11 year olds collect local data, lead community outreach, and use their impressive data to inform policy, testifying and rallying at City Hall. They take the deep dive into the root causes of plastic pollution, bridging the connection between plastic, climate change, and environmental justice before turning their focus back to school. There they take action to rid their cafeteria of all single-use plastic, driving forward city-wide action and a scalable, youth-led plastic-free movement.

With stop-motion animation, heartfelt kid commentary, and interviews of experts and renowned scientists who are engaged in the most cutting edge research on the harmful effects of microplastics, this alarming, yet charming narrative, conveys an urgent message in user-friendly terms with a take action message to spark youth-led plastic free action in schools everywhere.

  • Atsuko Quirk
    "It's Everybody's Ocean" - Director and Writer
  • Debby Lee Cohen
  • Atsuko Quirk
    "School Lunch in Japan - It's not just about eating" - Director, Producer, Writer
  • Debby Lee Cohen
    Classical Baby (HBO) - Set Designer and Story Advisor
  • Debby Lee Cohen
    "Twas the Night" (HBO) - Segment Producer and Animation Consultant
  • Atsuko Quirk
  • 5th grade students from PS 15 in Red Hook. Brooklyn
    Key Cast
    "as themselves"
  • Dr. Marcus Eriksen
    Key Cast
    "himself (marine science expert)"
    The Smog of the Sea; Junk Raft
  • Dr. Chelsea Rochman
    Key Cast
    "herself (ecotoxicologist expert)"
  • Judith Enck
    Key Cast
    "herself (Beyond Plastics founder, former EPA Region 2 Administrator)"
  • Project Type:
  • Genres:
  • Runtime:
    1 hour 15 minutes 57 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    September 23, 2019
  • Production Budget:
    230,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
    United States
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
    Digital DSLR
  • Aspect Ratio:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Atsuko Quirk, Debby Lee Cohen

ATSUKO QUIRK, documentary filmmaker, environmental advocate, and Media Director at CafeteriaCulture.org (CafCu), a non-profit environmental organization, is a 21st generation Samurai family member from northern Japan, living in New York City.

Her documentary, "It's Everybody's Ocean," won Best Documentary Short at NYC International Film Festival (2014), as well as 2 additional festival awards. It has been shown in film festivals in ten cities around the world (https://www.itseverybodysoceanmovie.com). Her short documentary, “SCHOOL LUNCH IN JAPAN - It’s not just about eating” (2010) has over 23 million views on YouTube. The movie conveys an important message about the quality of school mealtime that has inspired international audiences, including government, parents, teachers, and students.

Atsuko teaches videography, production, storytelling and leadership to underserved New York City youth through Cafeteria Culture’s ARTS+MEDIA for Climate Action, zero waste and plastic-free school programs. Since 2010, she has designed and led the organization's signature Cafeteria Ranger program and training, bringing Japanese style student leadership to public school cafeterias in NYC and beyond. Prior to joining the Cafeteria Culture team, she designed and piloted school food waste audit and reduction programs in public school cafeterias, engaging students on zero waste with responsibility and gratitude.

Prior to directing her own documentaries, Atsuko worked for 15 years as a production manager of TV commercials, feature films and TV shows. She produced and filmed a video and presentation as part of the the US EPA webinar, "How to Reduce Cafeteria Waste - Best Practices in NYC Public Schools"
Under her directorship, Cafeteria Culture was was one of only five North American organizations to receive an inaugural UL Innovative Education Award (2015) for advancing environmental STEM education, sustainable communities, and youth empowerment. Cafeteria Culture received an Environmental Quality Award from the US EPA Region 2 in 2013 and a competitive US EPA Region 2 Trash Free Waters grant for our “Community Arts+Media for Trash Free Waters” program for 3 NYC DOE schools, including PS 15 in red Hook Brooklyn, the program that sparked the idea to create MICROPLASTIC MADNESS.

DEBBY LEE COHEN, Director/Producer, is a multi-disciplinary artist, educator, and zero waste activist. She is the Founder and Executive Director of Cafeteria Culture - a New York City based nonprofit working with urban youth towards zero waste, climate smart schools, and a plastic free biosphere. She has designed scenery, giant puppets, and animation for theater, parades, opera, film and television, including HBO.

In 2009, she decided to apply her design and collaboration skills towards eliminating the 850,000 toxic and polluting styrofoam lunch trays used per day in NYC schools. This effort has resulted in the eleven largest US urban school districts eliminating half a billion styrofoam trays per year from landfills, incinerators and student meals.

Cohen’s HBO credits include Consultant/Art Director for "Saving My Tomorrow"; Set Designer/Consultant for Emmy Award winner, "Classical Baby”; and Segment Producer for “Twas the Night.” She was Production Designer on the movie, "The Outfitters" (1999), starring Danny Nucci and Dana Delany.

She has directed commercial animation for MTV and Citibank spots and her independent paint-on-glass animation has aired on PBS, Showtime, and at festivals including the Annecy International Animated Film Festival.

Cohen was commissioned to design a food-themed children’s parade with giant puppets and 500 youth in Jardin des Tuileries, Paris and the lead puppets for NY's Village Halloween Parade for 8 years, including the endangered species back-pack puppet-series. She art directed Meredith Monk’s "Ascension Variations" - a site specific performance for 120 performers - at The Guggenheim Museum (2009) and has designed scenery for productions at BAM, Houston Grand Opera, and Lincoln Center.

Grants awarded include: NY Foundation for the Arts (film), National Endowment for the Arts (puppets), Jim Henson Foundation (puppets). She has designed and taught interdisciplinary arts and environmental education at Parsons the New School, to teens at risk, inmates, seniors and many thousands of NYC public school students through her work with CafeteriaCulture.org.

Under Cohen’s directorship, Cafeteria Culture received a UL Innovative Education Award (2015) and a US EPA Environmental Quality Award (2013). She was honored to receive an official “proclamation” from Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer (2018) recognizing her zero waste efforts and an Eco Hero Award from the UFT, NYC teachers’ union for her work in eliminating Styrofoam trays from NYC schools (2010).

Cohen serves as a member of the Manhattan Citizen's Solid Waste Advisory Board (MSWAB) and Steering Group for the Plastic Free Waters Partnership NY/NJ (formerly US EPA Region 2 Trash Free Waters Partnership).


Add Director Biography
Director Statement

We first met the amazing group of students featured in Microplastic Madness in 2016. Cafeteria Culture, the non-profit environmental education organization that we co-direct, had been awarded a competitive grant from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to pilot our Plastic Free Waters program at PS 15 in Red Hook, Brooklyn (New York City). Many of these students reside in public housing, facing a multitude of complex challenges on a daily basis. All are living on the frontlines of climate change in a community that was severely impacted by Superstorm Sandy. We were immediately taken with these then fourth graders, their strong sense of community, their eagerness to question and share ideas, and their excitement to take on bold leadership.

We decided to make Microplastic Madness to share the unique point of these 10-11 year olds, a fresh and urgently needed perspective on the plastic pollution problem. As they came to realize and articulate the interconnectedness of plastic pollution, climate change, and environmental justice, we committed our organization to fully documenting their journey, raising the needed funds to continue teaching the program for another year. We knew we had to tell the in depth story of plastic pollution through the sincere voices of these children that could inspire youth across the globe to take action in their schools and communities, creating a domino effect of global change for a plastic free future.

Prior to founding Cafeteria Culture, catalyzing the elimination of styrofoam trays from all New York City schools, and dedicating our careers to innovating zero waste education, both of us had worked in the documentary world. Atsuko’s previous film, “It’s Everybody’s Ocean”, tells the story of a tiny, beautiful island in the southernmost part of Japan, once full of pristine beaches that now plays host to tons of plastic marine debris arriving from all over Asia. The movie connects the island’s unique culture with marine plastic pollution and one small community’s struggle to survive with this gigantic problem. Debby Lee’s previous film work includes design and consulting for HBO family, as well as years of producing independent and commercial animation. Together, we saw the making of this movie as an incredible opportunity to build upon our hard won victories and to scale up the action set in motion by this extraordinary group of children.

Atsuko shot individual student interviews on a regular basis, capturing the students' love of animals and their quiet anger towards inequality. Her dual role as movie director and educator, along with Cafeteria Culture’s small but dedicated team of educators, gave us a truly unique position to capture many unique moments of student growth, reflection, and the genuine desire of these 10-11 years olds to affect change with their new knowledge, local data, and heartfelt passion.

Through Debby Lee’s volunteer leadership role of the Plastic Free Waters Partnership NY/NJ, we had connections to renowned experts and scientists working on the most cutting edge research and solutions to the microplastic pollution crisis. The interviews of these experts, who we already had relationships with and who respect our education and advocacy work, adds a personal touch and openness to the adult interview, making these segments more accessible for our audience.

Led by Cafeteria Culture, Microplastic Madness will be the centerpiece of a national impact campaign catalyzing a youth-led movement to stop plastic pollution. We are also producing a five-segment educational version to be shared as a free, online series along with companion in-class curriculum for grades 4-8. We expect to reach even more people through our YouTube channel, CafCu Media, building on our success with School Lunch in Japan, a documentary short directed by Atsuko Quirk, that now has 23 million views.