River Blue documentary looks at how jeans industry destroys rivers

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At an environmental business conference this month, Levi's CEO Chip Bergh encouraged denim wearers not to wash their jeans for both aesthetic and environmental reasons.

While that may help to reduce some of the toxins getting into our water systems, the manufacturing of jeans themselves still has to be addressed.

Burnaby-based river advocate Mark Angelo investigated this problem while making the documentary River Blue.

Angelo told the Georgia Straight by phone that while he and his local filmmaking team set out to look at the values of and threats to rivers, they wound up taking an in-depth look at impact of textile and tannery industries, which he says make up 20 percent of world's industrial-related freshwater pollution.

Chemical-intensive washes, dying processes, bleaching, and fabric printing can involve heavy metals, including lead and mercury, which factories often discharge into rivers. The wastewater changes both the colour and smell of rivers, sometimes into a reeking, oozing mass.

The full film won't be released until later this year. However, an extended trailer preview will be shown at the Vancouver Festival of Ocean Films on June 5, which Angelo will be presenting.

What he saw about the state of rivers around the world deeply concerned him.

"While we saw some glimmers of hope along the way—a few examples where rivers had actually improved—but the overriding reality was that many of the world's rivers are in a state of crisis. Many are in deep trouble. We saw a number of others that were literally lifeless."

Although it may seem incongruous for a film about rivers to be presented at a festival about oceans, Angelo is a proponent of the idea that "everything is interconnected" when it comes to environmental issues. What affects rivers inevitably affects oceans.

"In China, we traveled pretty much the full length of the Li and Pearl Rivers…and it was really interesting and depressing to see this river get continually worse as we moved downriver, to the point where you get down to the very bottom of the Pearl and it's a severely polluted river and all of those pollutants are finding their way into the estuary and into the ocean, and they're having an impact on the livelihood of fishermen."

In turn, North American consumption of products made in Asian factories, and the drive for cheaper prices, is fueling this global problem.

Also, what happens in Asia doesn't stay restricted to Asia. He used the example of debris from Japanese tsunami carried by ocean currents to North American shores.

"Toxins move the same way," he says. "They're just not as visible. They're underwater. They're mixed in with water."

Accordingly, this point harkens back to his emphasis on thinking of everything as interconnected.

"Sometimes people tend to think that an environmental issue that's severely depleting the environment in one part of the world won't impact us over here in North America, but that's incorrect….I've spent a good part of my life on waterways and I just feel so fortunate about that but I've seen enough to make me fearful about what lies ahead and I do believe that clean water, healthy rivers, are becoming increasingly scarce commodities….I do believe that these are issues we should all care about, regardless of where we live."

Angelo hopes the film will be a "positive agent for change" and he sees hope in growth for things like BC Rivers Day and World Rivers Day (both of which he founded) as well as river advocacy groups.

"There's still time to turn things around but we have to act very, very quickly," he says.

For those interested in taking action, Angelo says there are numerous things that people can do. In our everyday lives, he suggests becoming careful about what you pour down storm drains to changing water-related practices at work. He also points out that there are numerous activist, awareness, or preservation groups that people can become involved in. Furthermore, he also suggests becoming involved in politics by bringing water issues to the attention of elected officials.

The River Blue website also has a Take Action section, which includes a video contest. Contestants can win cash prizes for submitting a one-minute video about why water is important to them. (The deadline is Thursday [May 29]).

"When you come right down to it, water is life," Angelo says.

Yet if it is, why do we take it for granted?

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