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Plastics and the Recycling Myth

A new report shows that the plastics industry has known just how unrecyclable their products are for a very long time.
Abigail Bassett
Mar 5, 2024 10 min read
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Before we had blue bins and sorting stations, human beings were recycling. When garbage collection began in the late 19th century, workers sorted through refuse bound for the landfill and those things that were reusable. Then plastics came on the scene and became more widely used in the 1960s and 70s because they were cheap, easy to manufacture, sanitary, and, in theory, disposable or recyclable.

It turns out that the last part about plastic being recyclable is, in fact, a lie.

A recent report revealed that plastics producers have lied to the public about recycling for over thirty years. The report from the Center for Climate Integrity underscores the dire fact that only about 9% of plastics actually get recycled, while the other 91% end up in landfills or are incinerated, resulting in a whole variety of plastic pollution and toxic air pollution all over the world.

Some of this stems from the fact that the plastics industry has created a highly lucrative market for oil and gas industries, both of which have powerful global lobbying arms–so powerful that plastic producers are even working their way into schools to change the narrative around plastics.

30 Years of Plastic Recycling Fraud

The title of the report by the CCI, The Fraud of Plastic Recycling, is damning. In it, the fossil-fuel accountability group argues that in spite of the fact that plastic producers have known that it's very difficult to recycle plastic, the companies have continued to push the idea. As the president of CCI told The Guardian, “The companies lied,” about the feasibility and ease with which plastics can be recycled, and intentionally obfuscated the truth using marketing to convince the public that plastic isn't so bad for the environment because it can be reused.

Plastics are difficult to recycle because they require very careful sorting as each type has a different chemical makeup, and they can’t be recycled together. Many times, most recycling organizations end up just bundling all the plastic they gather together, and prior to 2019, sending it off to China.

Today, plastic waste is largely shipped to Malaysia and Indonesia, in spite of a global agreement called the Basel Convention, which has been in place since the beginning of 2021. A report in the New York Times notes that the US didn’t sign onto the Basel Convention, even though it was designed, in particular, to stem the massive flow of waste coming from the states. In spite of the Convention, America continues to send its plastic waste to other countries. As the Times says, “The American companies seem to be relying on a remarkable interpretation of the new rules: Even though it’s now illegal for most countries to accept all but the purest forms of plastic scrap from the United States, there’s nothing that prevents the United States from sending the waste.” As the story notes, once shipments reach the open ocean, they become illegal trafficking, which becomes an issue that the rest of the world has to deal with.

The authors of the CCI report drew on previous investigations and new internal documents that show that the industry as a whole has known how difficult the realities of recycling plastic actually are, for more than 30 years, pointing to plastics insiders who have referred to plastic recycling as “uneconomical,” stating that it “cannot go on indefinitely” and “cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution.” The report goes on to assert that plastic producers may have broken laws by falsely advertising the ease and benefits of plastic recycling and put the public in danger by hiding the damage that plastic pollution can do. As a reference, scientists have discovered that microplastics are now found everywhere, from human placentas and saliva, to rock formations in remote areas around the world.

Unsplash +

Plastics Push Their Message into the Classroom

Adding to this alarming report is the fact that plastic producers are now making inroads into public classrooms, according to a recent report by The Washington Post. While it’s not new to see industry target young people with their messages through classes, events, grants, and programs, the WaPo piece is particularly upsetting because the current plastic lobbying effort is targeting high school students under the guise that “plastics actually help the environment.”

While it’s not uncommon for industries to push their agendas in schools, it is new to see it happen for young learners. Universities like Rutgers have had plastics recycling research centers since the 1980s, which was established by the Society of the Plastics Industry. The Society of the Plastics Industry brought together petrochemical companies and bottlers to launch a campaign that focused on recycling as a solution to plastic pollution in spite of the fact that they knew it was a sham.

As the Post reports, schools have become the new battleground for plastics, where groups like The Society of Plastics Engineers Foundation and its “PlastiVan” program can be found everywhere from high school classrooms to Girl Scout events. “Once housed out of an actual van, the program has since grown into a sophisticated messaging and recruitment operation, visiting as many as 175 schools annually. In Northeast Texas, hundreds of Girl Scouts have been awarded a PlastiVan-sponsored merit badge,” according to the story.

The PlastiVan program isn’t the only one either, another called PragerU provides videos for classrooms in five states and attempts to allay the guilt that most young people have about plastic waste, making the highly questionable argument that, in fact, plastics are good for the environment. These groups argue that the responsibility of plastic pollution lies with consumers and humanity, not with plastic makers, and warn that life would be “a mess” without plastics.

So What Does the Future of Plastics and Recycling Look Like?

While states like New York are trying to figure out a solution to the massive plastic problem, the truth is that, as The New Republic points out, it probably looks like just less plastic everywhere.

As that story points out, New York is working on legislation that would require companies with more than $1 million in revenue to cut their plastic packaging by half over a period of 12 years, and it would regulate the more damaging/less recyclable plastics, as well. The New York Packaging Reduction Infrastructure Act or SB S4246A is currently in committee in the New York State Senate.

U.S. cities and states are winning the fight against plastic waste with effective single-use plastic bag bans.  Over 500 city ordinances and 12 state bans have been enacted to prohibit plastic bags, covering states from California to Washington. There's potential for Georgia and Massachusetts to join this list with new legislation underway.

It will take a lot to ween humanity from their addiction to plastic, but if we want to ensure that our planet remains livable for the next generation, it's going to be worth it.

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The Author

Abigail Bassett