Plastic was invented in the late nineteenth century to replace materials derived from nature, like ivory from elephant tusks. For this reason, plastics were celebrated. They could protect the natural world from the destructive needs of human beings – it turns out, big oil misled us.
After World War Two, the plastics industry began booming. Its untarnished reputation, however, did not last. The first plastic debris began showing up in the oceans in the 1960s, a time when Americans were becoming increasingly aware of environmental issues .
As anxiety about waste in the 1970s and 1980s increased, plastics’ popularity began plummeting. That was when executives in the plastic industry came up with a solution: recycling.
Several decades later, however, the plastic problem has only gotten worse. Recycling hasn’t worked, and we’re learning now that industry experts knew it wouldn’t all along. It turns out, big oil misled an entire generation, and today the environment is paying for it.
How Recycling Works
Before diving into how big oil misled an entire generation of people, it’s first important to understand how recycling works.
The basic idea of recycling is simple: you take something that is no longer useful, and instead of throwing it away, you turn it into something else. Theoretically, anything can be recycled, and that includes plastic.
So how does recycling work on a large scale?
There are three major steps in the recycling process:
1. Collection and Processing
Once materials are collected, they are sent to a recovery facility. There, they must be sorted, cleaned, and processed into materials that can be used for manufacturing. Recyclables are bought and sold just like any other product. Prices will vary depending on supply and demand, both in the United States and around the world.
This means that if there is not enough demand for recyclables, the leftovers end up in the landfill.
A company that makes products out of recycled materials will purchase what they need, and turn it into something new. Newspapers, steel cans, and plastic laundry detergent bottles are common items made from recycled materials.
The consumer is the one who closes the loop, by purchasing items made from recycled materials. If you want to buy these items, look for terms like “recycled-content product”, “post-consumer content”, or “recyclable product” on the label .
Big Oil Misled a Generation
The recycling process sounds fool-proof, but the problem is, it doesn’t actually work. At least, it doesn’t work anywhere near as well as plastic and oil companies made it seem.
Laura Leebrick is a manager at Rogue Disposal and Recycling in Southern Oregon. She watches as mountains of plastics and supposedly “recyclable” goods are buried in the ground regularly.
Until two years ago, Rogue had been sending a lot of its plastic trash to China, as did most recycling companies. When China stopped accepting recycled materials from the US, there was nowhere for the majority of it to go.
Leebrick felt like she was betraying the public. They all thought their products were being recycled, and instead they were ending up in the landfill. When she tried to tell the city council the truth, however, they didn’t want to listen.
It turns out, the plastics industry sold the public on an idea they knew wouldn’t work. There are documents from the 1970s in which industry insiders admitted that recycling plastic could never be economically viable. Despite this, they spent millions of dollars on marketing campaigns to convince the public that the majority of plastic could- and would- be recycled.
Why would the plastics industry do this? To ensure that you, the consumer, would keep buying plastic. If the consumer thinks recycling is working, they will be less concerned about the environment. If they’re less concerned about the environment, they’ll keep buying plastic .
The Problem With Recycling
There are two major problems with recycling:
- It’s too expensive
- It’s poorer quality
Technically, all used plastic can be turned into something new, but it takes a lot of time and money to that. Picking it up, cleaning it, sorting it, and melting it down is costly- far more costly than simply making new plastics.
Additionally, plastic degrades every time you reuse it. This means it can only be used once or twice before it’s no longer useful.
New plastic, however, is cheap and easy to produce, and it is far better quality than products made from recycled plastic. For these reasons, since recycling programs began, less than ten percent of plastic has ever been recycled .
A Convincing Campaign
Larry Thomas is the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association. Today, it is one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, DC. He recalls a meeting in 1989 with the country’s major plastics manufacturers to discuss the downturn in the industry.
“The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire — we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products,” he says .
The plan? Advertise their way out of it. Thus began the plastic industry’s ad campaign to promote the benefits of plastics. That campaign cost fifty million dollars per year.
Legislation was on the table
At the time, legislation to ban or curb the use of plastics was being brought up in Congress. The purpose of this ad campaign was to go against that. To help their cause, the industry also began introducing a number of feel-good projects to encourage the public to recycle their plastics.
Of course, none of these projects could get past the economic difficulties of recycling. All of them stopped after just a few years. All the executives in the industry knew this was the case.
“There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to recycle,” Thomas remembers. “They knew that the infrastructure wasn’t there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.” 
The industry created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, and hired Ron Liesmer to oversee it. His job? To try to make recycling work. Not surprisingly, he couldn’t get past the economics of it. There were too many different kinds of plastics, and it was too costly and time-intensive to sort them.
“They were trying to keep their products on the shelves,” Liesemer says. “That’s what they were focused on. They weren’t thinking what lesson should we learn for the next 20 years. No. Solve today’s problem.” 
A Symbol of Confusion
There was another part to the plastics plan. In the early 1990s, the industry launched their new initiative: the recycling symbol.
This symbol, the three arrows in a triangular formation, was known as the international recycling symbol. Before, it was used only on products that could actually be recycled. The industry started stamping that symbol on every plastic product with a number on it. Most of these items, however, are simply trash.
There are documents from as early as 1989 showing that plastics executives had begun quietly lobbying nearly forty states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic. This was even for products that can’t be recycled economically.
Coy Smith, who ran a recycling business at the time, said that including this symbol on all products did nothing but confuse consumers. It made all plastics look recyclable.
“It totally undermined our credibility, undermined what we knew was the truth in our community, not the truth from a lobbying group out of D.C.,” he said .
In 1993, top officials recieved reports telling them that the symbol was being misused. Companies were using it as a “green” marketing tool. The code was creating unrealistic expectations about how much plastic can actually be recycled.
Smith and his colleagues tried to launch a protest to have the symbol removed, but they lost.
Jim Becker, the vice president of sustainability for Chevron Phillips, sees a very bright future for their products.
“These are products the world needs and continues to need,” he says. “We’re very optimistic about future growth.” 
He says that recycling has to become more efficient and more economical. The industry needs to do a better job at collecting and sorting waste, but it will take a huge effort.
“Fixing recycling is an imperative, and we’ve got to get it right,” says Steve Russell, the industry’s recent spokesman. “I understand there is doubt and cynicism. That’s going to exist. But check back in. We’re there.” 
Thomas, however, does not believe that anything has changed. He says it sounds like exactly the same message.
“You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material,” Thomas says. “Nobody that is producing a virgin product wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material — that’s their business.” 
Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050, so by all-intensive purposes it appears as though the plastic industry isn’t going anywhere and big oil continues to mislead.