The plastic industry has spent millions convincing the public that recycling would keep plastic out of landfills and oceans, all the while knowing recycling most plastics would be too expensive to realistically carry out, a joint investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline found.
The industry knew for decades that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills, with one industry insider writing in a 1974 speech that “there is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” the investigation found.
Yet the plastic industry spent millions on advertising convincing the public that recycling would keep the environment clean while making billions selling new plastic
“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, told NPR.
Less than 10% of the plastic produced since 1960 has been recycled, according to the U.S.Environmental Protection Agency.
The oil industry makes $400 billion a year making plastic, and as demand for oil for cars and trucks falls, plans to increase its investment in plastic production, the investigation found.
Democrats have seized on climate change as a topic this campaign season, with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announcing Thursday major climate change legislation would be an “early part” of the agenda should Democrats win back the White House in November, including recommitting the U.S. to the Paris Climate Accords and passing the Moving Forward Act, which would fund zero-emmision busses, provide funding for electrifying the postal service fleet, and require states to meet certain greenhouse gas emission goals and account for climate change before undertaking new projects.
All plastic can be recycled and turned into new plastic products, the report says, but the process of sorting and melting it down is expensive, and plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it becomes unusable. New plastic, on the other hand, is much sturdier, and much cheaper to produce. Until 2018 most of the recyclable plastic in the U.S. was shipped to China — until then scrap and waste was America’s sixth largest export to China. In July, 2018 China banned the imports of 24 kinds of waste, including types of plastic usually sent from the U.S. Since then more and more recyclable plastic has been buried in U.S. landfills. In 2017, 26,820 tons of plastic was landfilled out of 35,370 produced, according to the EPA.