Plastics Industry Oversold Recycling to Americans, Now What?

by Zoey Shipley and Miro Korenha

NPR and PBS Frontline recently announced a new joint investigation which has revealed that since the 1980s, “the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects, and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled” all in an effort to fight plastics bans. 

Unfortunately, the industry’s own data made it clear that recycling plastic on a large-scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable, but nonetheless, Americans were told to rinse, sort and do their part. 

What Happened: Evidence shows that these lies were told to the public so that the plastics and petrochem industries could avoid bans on plastic. 

  • Consumers were lied to so that they would be less aware of the effect of these products on the environment and so plastics manufacturers wouldn’t have to bear responsibility for their products at the end of life. 
  • And as a result, local industries and cities are struggling to maintain recycling infrastructure. 

Larry Thomas, who led the lobbying group Society of the Plastics Industry for more than a decade told NPR that “The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire, we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products,” adding that “If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

The Current Outlook: As Our Daily Planet previously wrote, China (the once biggest recyclables end market) stopped accepting America’s trash for recycling due to its high levels of contamination. This has left recyclable materials piling up in city dumps as cities grapple with the problem of having nowhere to send this waste. The fee for waste collection and processing falls on taxpayers and for many municipalities, the funds simply aren’t there to create an effective recycling process. 

 As of 2017, the EPA announced that around 35 million tons of plastic was created in America but only 3 million tons (8.4%) had been recycled.

 

Why This Matters: The petrochemical industry will not stop the production of plastic as long as it stays profitable, and beverage companies aren’t making the switch to more sustainable packaging. But recycling is not working and it’s also not a political priority. But as the coronavirus sucks up all political capital, industry is seizing on the opportunity to do away with even the most modest measures to reign in its pollution. 

Steps In The Right Direction: Our Daily Plante wrote in February 2020, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA) and Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act

 

  • This legislation would be a major relief to local Americans and cities because the burden of dealing with plastic waste would be put on to the industries that produce it. 

 

Bottom Line: Most Americans don’t have the resources to properly recycle their trash or they make the mistake of thinking something is recyclable when it is not. We know the policy incentives that help increase rates of recycling and make it more mainstream for consumers, but recycling is often a forgotten policy priority. That needs to change. 

 

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