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).
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.