Environment

Plastics Cannot Be Recycled and Producers Know This, Report Claims

An ocean shore in South Africa littered with garbage, including plastic bottles and cans

Mary ManleyThe Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) released a report on Thursday which details how the plastics industry has evolved its marketing pitch in order to circumvent public backlash and potential regulation.According to a report by the CCI, despite their knowledge that recycling plastics is not technically or economically practical, petrochemical companies have continued to push “fraudulent” marketing and public outreach campaigns to convince consumers otherwise. Doing so, the report says, has stalled legislative and regulatory action that could have addressed plastic waste and pollution long ago.“Fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies have used the false promise of plastic recycling to exponentially increase virgin plastic production over the last six decades, creating and perpetuating the global plastic waste crisis and imposing significant costs on communities that are left to pay for the consequences,” the CCI wrote.More than 99% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels, the report continues. Though there are thousands of different types of plastic, the majority of these cannot be “recycled”. And despite efforts to convince consumers otherwise, the recycling rate in the US for plastics in 2021 was estimated to be only 5% to 6%.After a 10-year review on plastics, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that there are only two types of plastics that can be turned into high quality objects: PET and HDPE, which are both commonly used to make plastic containers and bottles.Meanwhile, any other form of plastic is incinerated or sent to landfills, because even though some plastics are recyclable in theory, they are not actually recycled in practice due to purity requirements that are not practical—for example, a green PET bottle cannot be recycled with a clear PET bottle. The quality of the plastic also degrades as it is recycled, which limits its use in its next life. And ultimately, recycled plastic materials will still end up in the landfill.The toxicity of the plastics also creates issues during the recycling process. The chemical additives in plastics include stabilizers, plasticizers, coatings, catalysts, and flame retardants as well as possible contamination by whatever that plastic contained such as cleaning solvents or pesticides. This means a majority of plastics cannot be recycled into food-grade packaging, or other products that interact with food.The cost of recycling plastics is also much higher than what it costs to produce new plastic.“The recycling process—from collection to sorting to processing to transport—requires more time, labor, and equipment to achieve a lower quality and less efficient output than the process of making virgin resin from fossil fuels,” the report explains.The sales pitch which falsely claims that plastics can be recycled was first created and perpetuated by petrochemical companies, the report says.“…the plastics industry has employed a familiar playbook for more than 50 years to escape accountability. Petrochemical companies—independently and through industry trade associations and front groups—have deceived consumers, policymakers, and regulators into believing that they could address the plastic waste crisis through a series of false solutions,” the CCI wrote.Beginning in the 1950s, petrochemical companies realized that if their products could be thrown away, this would ensure a steady, growing demand for them. At the same time, instances of children suffocating on reusable plastics led the plastic industry to claim that the bags were meant to be thrown out, which shifted the blame from the company to parents. As a result, from 1960 to 1970 plastic packaging production jumped from 10% to 25%.But then in the early 1970s, plastics were identified as a key issue in the solid waste crisis. To confront public backlash and government regulation, plastic companies came up with two solutions: landfilling and incineration. By the mid-1980s it was clear that neither of these efforts would ensure the public that there was a credible solution to the plastic waste issue. It was then that the plastics industry turned to their current recycling campaign, which was successful in “deceiving” the public about the viability of plastic recycling by the early 1990s, the report says.“They’re viewing it as a communications problem, but there’s another problem and they haven’t devoted, in my opinion, the kind of energy and creativity and ingenuity to the real problem that they are devoting to the communications part,” said Lewis Freeman, who had served as a Vice President at the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) from 1978 to 2001. The SPI was responsible for first launching its public relations campaign in the 1950s which led to the rise of disposable plastics.

“In 30 some-odd years, there have been some slight improvements in the amount of plastics recycling, but for all the effort and the money they spent, they haven’t moved the needle hardly at all. If they used the same measure of success and failure they do in running the rest of their business, they’d be out of business," Freeman added.

According to the CCI, around 2015 the attention to microplastics and an increasing visibility of ocean plastics and their impact on wildlife increased and led to public outrage. In response, plastic companies have tried to resell and rebrand failed technology they have used in the past as “new” in their campaign surrounding plastic recycling.“Companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, Chevron Phillips, and Dow—independently and through their industry trade associations—have colluded to deceive the public for half a century, despite extensive evidence that recycling is not a viable solution to the plastic waste problem,” the CCI wrote. “Fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies should now be held accountable for their deliberate campaign of deception and the resulting harms, much like tobacco and opioid companies that employed a similar playbook,” they added.The American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division and its member companies defended themselves against the report in a statement on Thursday.“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,” said America’s Plastic Makers President Ross Eisenberg. “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.”

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