DATE: March 31, 2020
SNIP: For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can’t be or won’t be recycled. In 40 years, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled.
In a joint investigation, NPR and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known that all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.
Starting in the late 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.
But their own internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials long knew that recycling plastic on a large scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable.
A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic “costly” and “difficult.” It called sorting it “infeasible,” saying “there is no recovery from obsolete products.” Another document a year later was candid: There is “serious doubt” widespread plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”
Despite this, three former top officials, who have never spoken publicly before, said the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of antipathy toward plastic in the 1980s and ’90s. The industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to preempt the bans and sell more plastic.
[T]he more plastic is recycled, the less money the industry will make selling new plastic. And those profits have become increasingly important.
Plastic production overall is now expected to triple by 2050, and once again, the industry is spending money on ads and public relations to promote plastic and recycling.
Plastic is now more prevalent than it’s ever been and harder to recycle. And the industry now produces many more different — and more complex — kinds of plastics that are more costly to sort and in many cases can’t be recycled at all. Efforts to reduce plastic consumption are mounting nationwide, but any plan to slow the growth of plastic will face an industry with billions of dollars of future profits at stake.