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Reduce, reuse, redirect outrage: How plastic makers used recycling as a fig leaf

A registered scavenger, who mainly collects plastic waste to sell, walking in a landfill in Indonesia.
AFP via Getty Images
A registered scavenger, who mainly collects plastic waste to sell, walking in a landfill in Indonesia.

The plastics industry has worked for decades to convince people and policymakers that recycling would keep waste out of landfills and the environment. Consumers sort their trash so plastic packaging can be repurposed, and local governments use taxpayer money to gather and process the material. Yet from the early days of recycling, plastic makers, including oil and gas companies, knew that it wasn't a viable solution to deal with increasing amounts of waste, according to documents uncovered by the Center for Climate Integrity.

Around the time the plastics industry launched its recycling campaign, the head of a trade group called the Vinyl Institute acknowledged at a 1989 conference that "recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem."

One of the biggest challenges is that making new plastic is relatively cheap. But recycling generally costs as much as or more than the material is worth, a director of environmental solutions at B.F. Goodrich explained at another industry meeting in 1992. The "basic issue," he said, "is economics."

But the industry appears to have championed recycling mainly for its public relations value, rather than as a tool for avoiding environmental damage, the documents suggest. "We are committed to the activities, but not committed to the results," a vice president at Exxon Chemical said during a meeting in 1994 with staff for the American Plastics Council, a trade group.

Ross Eisenberg, president of an industry group called America's Plastic Makers, said in a statement that the report from the Center for Climate Integrity "cites outdated, decades-old technologies, and works against our goals to be more sustainable by mischaracterizing the industry and the state of today's recycling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."

America's Plastic Makers has set a goal for all plastic packaging in the U.S. to be "reused, recycled, recovered by 2040," Eisenberg said.

The Center for Climate Integrity compiled the documents in a report titled "The Fraud of Plastic Recycling: How Big Oil and the plastics industry deceived the public for decades and caused the plastic waste crisis." It builds on earlier investigations, including by NPR, that have shown the plastics industry promoted recycling even though its officials have long known that the activity would probably never be effective on a large scale.

Former industry officials have said the goal was to avoid regulations and ensure that demand for plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, kept growing. Despite years of recycling campaigns, less than 10% of plastic waste gets recycled globally, and the amount of plastic waste that's dumped in the environment continues to soar.

The idea that recycling can solve the problem of plastic waste "has always been a fraud, and it's always been a way for the industry to sell more plastic," says Richard Wiles, president of the Center for Climate Integrity, which says it is working to hold oil and gas companies accountable for their role in fueling climate change.

A pile of plastic waste and other garbage next to children playing on a bridge in the Philippines.
George Calvelo / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
A pile of plastic waste and other garbage next to children playing on a bridge in the Philippines.

The U.N. is leading negotiations for a global plastics treaty

The Center for Climate Integrity published its report two months before the next round of United Nations talks is held in Canada for a legally binding global agreement on plastic waste. Negotiators from around 150 countries are expected to attend, as well as public health advocates, human rights activists, environmentalists and the oil and gas industry.

There's recently been growing concern among those who want deep cuts in plastic waste that plastic producers — corporations as well as countries such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia — could weaken a global treaty by prioritizing recycling and other forms of waste management, rather than substantial cuts in new plastic production.

For fossil fuel producers, the petrochemical sector, which includes plastics, is crucial to business. As technologies like electric vehicles grow more popular, demand for products such as gasoline and diesel fuel is expected to decline. But oil and gas demand for petrochemicals is projected to continue rising for years. That's why the fossil fuel industry has a big stake in the outcome of the U.N. talks. If countries agree to reduce plastic manufacturing, it could hurt the industry's future profits.

Some experts say that creates a conflict of interest. Reducing how much new plastic gets made in the first place is a "prerequisite" to getting pollution under control, Carsten Wachholz, who works at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and co-leads the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, said late last year. But "if your businesses depend on extracting more oil and gas, and plastics is the fastest growing market for fossil fuels, it's hard to imagine that you would be a credible voice to say we need to limit plastic production," he said.

After the last round of negotiations ended in Kenya in November 2023, environmental groups complained that oil and gas producers blocked a final decision on how to advance the deliberations.

An industry advocacy group called American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers has said that restricting fossil fuel production and plastic manufacturing are not good solutions. Instead, it said the goals of the treaty can be achieved "if waste is recyclable, properly managed and kept out of the environment."

An ExxonMobil spokesperson said in a statement in November 2023 that the company is "launching real solutions to address plastic waste and improve recycling rates." The company has previously said the problem of plastic waste can be solved without cutting how much plastic society uses.

Exxon is among a group of companies that have been investing in what the industry calls "advanced recycling" plants. The facilities are designed to turn plastic waste, including material that can't be processed through traditional mechanical recycling, into liquids and gasses that can then be used to make new plastics and other chemical products.

"Advanced recycling is a real, proven solution that can help address plastic waste and improve recycling rates," Exxon said in a statement to NPR.

However, critics say the technology is ineffective and harmful to the environment and human health.

The economics of plastic recycling "haven't changed at all. Not at all. And if virgin [plastic] was always cheaper and of higher quality, that's still the case today," says Wiles of the Center for Climate Integrity.

He says the plastics industry continues to mislead the public and needs to be held responsible for it.

"And from there, you can begin to have a conversation about how we're going to solve the problem," Wiles says. "But without accountability, you just can't get to solutions."

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Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.