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The Lies of the Plastics Industry—Exposed

February 18, 2024

“The Fraud”—Plastics Industry Lied about Recycling

They lied. The plastics industry lied when it promoted recycling as a solution to its waste problem, knowing full well it wasn’t technically or economically viable, according to a new report, The Fraud of Plastic Recycling: How Big Oil and the plastics industry deceived the public for decades and caused the plastic waste crisis, by The Center for Climate Integrity (CCI).

Credit: Celinebj/Creative Commons

Using prior investigations and recently obtained internal documents, the report reveals how petrochemical companies created the plastic waste crisis through a pattern of deceptive marketing campaigns. The report explains that plastic is nearly impossible to recycle, since most products are made from chemically distinct varieties with different chemical additives or colorants that make the already expensive process of recycling more costly than using virgin materials. Even if a piece of plastic is recycled, the industry knew it could only be reused once—maybe twice—and actually became more toxic as it degraded.

Despite these challenges, the industry promoted recycling with the familiar but misleading “triangle of chasing arrows” like on the bottom of yogurt containers and laundry bottles, implying that the onus was on consumers to reduce waste, all while intentionally expanding single-use products to meet a demand they invented.

Ultimately, cities and municipalities bore the burden of building the infrastructure to collect, sort, clean, and process the plastic waste, so adding insult to injury of the plastic crisis, taxpayers foot the bill.

From the report:

As a result, the economics of plastic recycling were—and still are—“virtually hopeless,” as one industry insider put it in 1969. When industry began to promote mechanical recycling in the 1980s, recovery from the municipal waste stream required extensive—and expensive—infrastructure that was not in place, sorting technologies were woefully inadequate to handle the wide variety of plastics, and recycling facilities would need to be built without any guarantee that they would ever see a return. The cost of collecting, sorting, cleaning, processing, and more would have to be borne by someone—namely municipalities and taxpayers.

If not for the Big Oil and the plastic industry’s lies and deception, municipalities and states would not have invested in plastic recycling programs and facilities—many of which have been shut down due to foreseeable economic losses.

One of the first and most important steps in this campaign to make consumers believe in plastic recycling was the implementation of a labeling system known as Resin Identification Codes, or RICs. First introduced in 1988 by SPI, the “Voluntary Plastic Container Coding System,” as it was originally known, grouped plastics by resin type and labeled them with a number surrounded by a triangle of “chasing arrows,” the widely recognized symbol for recycling. Despite SPI’s public claims that the RICs were intended to help promote recycling by making sorting easier for recyclers, VI had indicated that the system was unlikely to work two years prior, writing the “trend...toward ‘composites’—containers made up of several different materials”—meant that “efforts to simplify source separation by labeling containers as to their material makeup...are of limited practicality.”

A CCI press release states that report shows how petrochemical companies, including oil majors such as ExxonMobil, have long known that, as the founding director of the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group, explained to conference attendees in 1989, “Recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.”

Plastic waste is everywhere, collecting in our rivers, lakes, and oceans and the air we breathe. It’s in the food we eat and the water we drink. One study estimates that humans ingest the equivalent of one credit card’s worth of plastic every week.

Under attack for the myth of plastic recycling, in recent years the industry has promoted “advanced recycling” also known as “chemical recycling” as a solution and a technological breakthrough that would address hard-to-recycle plastics; however, it significantly overstates and misrepresents its potential to justify rapidly expanding plastic production.

The American Chemistry Council responded, “Unfortunately, this flawed report cites outdated, decades-old technologies, and works against our goals to be more sustainable by mischaracterizing the industry and the state of today's recycling technologies. This undermines the essential benefits of plastics and the important work underway to improve the way plastics are used and reused to meet society's needs."

The authors of the new report say attorneys general and other officials should consider the evidence they present that companies defrauded the public and take appropriate action to hold them accountable.

A Wrinkle in the Negotiations Over Allocating the Colorado River

There is urgency for the seven states that rely on the Colorado River to reach an agreement on how to keep water levels high enough in its two major reservoirs. Climate change is threatening water delivery and power systems as the region becomes drier.

Lake Mead, 2022  |  Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

The states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and California—have until next month to agree on alternatives to keep the system afloat for the next couple of decades and submit them to the Bureau of Reclamation. If they don’t, the bureau will propose its own plan for cuts to allocations from the river, which supplies 40 million people and agriculture.

However, there’s a wrinkle in the negotiations. A report released by the bureau on February 8 concluded that 1.3 million acre-feet of water was lost annually to evaporation and transpiration in the three Lower Basin states of Arizona, California, and Nevada. Water lost to evaporation and transpiration has not been considered under the current rules. Despite evaporation and transpiration, the three lower states have continued to draw down from the reservoirs that are threatened by aridification.

Now, all of the Colorado River Basin states, except California, have submitted a letter to the federal government proposing that in times of low water levels, there would be cuts in allocations—most heavily to California—that take evaporation and transpiration into account. The Los Angeles Times reports that agencies in Southern California would be required to endure the largest cuts, up to 32 percent for evaporation losses if Lake Powell and Lake Mead hit crisis levels. California has proposed a more modest plan that it argues does not rewrite the rules of the river, which are based on historic water rights. Because of the winter snowpack last year, recent storms, and conservation, water levels at Lake Mead, the country’s largest reservoir, are currently about 40 feet higher than was projected.

Added to the federal government’s deadline for the states to come up with a plan for cutbacks, is the fear that a different administration after the November election could change those involved at the federal level.

Greenland Is Turning Green as It Heats Up

Greenland is turning green. The ice sheets and glaciers on the world’s largest island are melting, leading to the growth of vegetation. A new study shows large areas where ice used to be, now have shrubs, wetlands, or barren rock for the first time since the Vikings visited 1,000 years ago. A team of scientists from the University of Leeds attribute the conditions to warmer air temperatures, which have been heating up at twice the global average. 

Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Ice and snow reflect the sun’s energy keeping Earth cooler, but as temperatures rise, the melting exposes bedrock that absorbs energy. The bare places are then colonized by tundra or treeless ecosystems and eventually shrublands. The melting ice also moves sediment and silt to form wetlands that can release the potent greenhouse gas methane as microbes feed on organic material.

Over a 30-year period, the amount of land with vegetation in Greenland doubled by more than 33,000 square miles, which in addition to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, will contribute to shifting landscapes and sea level rise.

The scientists also say that permafrost, which is a frozen layer beneath Earth’s surface, is being degraded and could affect communities, buildings, and infrastructure.

The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Water Pollution Cleaned Up with Flower Power

Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution from fertilizer runoff and sewage is a global problem that creates algal blooms in rivers and lakes and dead zones in oceans, where a lack of oxygen diminishes water quality and kills aquatic life. But, according to a team of scientists, there could be a beautiful solution—flowers!

The researchers say the cut flowers could pay for themselves and even turn a profit.  |  Credit: Margi Rentis, CC BY-ND|

Researchers from Florida International University grew marigolds through holes on floating mats in canals near Miami, in a method similar to hydroponics. Instead of getting nutrients from soils, the plants soaked up nitrogen and phosphorus from the polluted water to thrive. And boy they did thrive. The plants blossomed into long, marketable stems with large blooms in quantities that matched typical flower farm production—all while removing 52 percent more phosphorus and 36 percent more nitrogen than would occur naturally.

The bigger the plants grew, the cleaner the water got, which the researchers say could not only solve a vexing pollution problem but also contribute to the area’s economy. Eighty percent of the nation’s bouquet flowers are imported from South America through the Miami International Airport, and the team says the blossoms they grow could be sold to local florists and provide jobs.

Wetlands extract harmful nutrients from water, but many have been eliminated by development. These floating flower wetlands could be an effective way to stem the tide of pollution worldwide.

The work was published in the journal Environmental Advances.