"It's pure manipulation of the consumer."
September 12, 2020 12:39 PM   Subscribe

How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled - NPR and PBS Frontline spent months digging into internal industry documents and interviewing top former officials. We found that the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn't work — that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled — all while making billions of dollars selling the world new plastic. The industry's awareness that recycling wouldn't keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program's earliest days, we found. "There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis," one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.
posted by roaring beast (44 comments total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
 
Recycling is the one thing I think my mom still believes in, I sort of hope she doesn't hear about this.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 1:19 PM on September 12 [4 favorites]


un-costed externalities will be the death of 'civilization' and billions of people, and are the death of thousands of species.
posted by lalochezia at 1:26 PM on September 12 [19 favorites]


Our family was making regular runs to the friendly neighborhood recycling place since the Carter Administration.
When we got weekly curbside pickup, Pa Ardship was a total micromanager when it came to what went in which bin at what angle to the point I'd worry about him having an aneurysm if catfood cans weren't properly washed before final disposition.
Nice to know that all those years of physical and yes, emotional labor meant exactly bugger-all.
posted by The Ardship of Cambry at 2:36 PM on September 12 [7 favorites]


The new-hotness in plastic recycling, at least from inside the plastic industry, is chemical recycling, in which the plastic is reduced to its component parts then those can be built back up to make whatever. For example reducing polyethylene to ethylene which then can be used to make virgin PE or a whole bunch of other things. This (to a certain extent) solves the sorting problem -- you don't have to sort plastic all that well if it's going to be pyrolyzed. But it also sounds kinda too good to be true? This just feels like it will turn out to be the same old line but in different packaging. For one just gathering, shipping, and processing all of that plastic (by truck and rail) will probably always be less economical than a pipeline of raw ethane coming from existing natural gas processing (for example).

Also, relatedly maybe, when I was an undergrad one of my profs worked on ways to make styrofoam recycling more economical. In that case, even if it was perfectly clean and sorted, it made no economic sense to ship styrofoam back to be recylced due to it's low density so there was work on trying to find ways of solving that problem (by dissolving the foam in solvents for example) at least that is how she explained it. But as far as I know none of those schemes ever went anywhere because making new polystyrene was just always cheaper.

Barring a dramatic draw-down in fossil fuel extraction (which, you know, we probably should be doing for other reasons) I don't see this changing without some government intervention. But boy will we see a lot of new initiatives coming out of industry to try and spin plastic as being green.
posted by selenized at 2:50 PM on September 12 [9 favorites]


Related Big Oil perfidy, just coming to light today:
"A Secret Recording Reveals Oil Executives’ Private Views on Climate Change. At a meeting last year, industry leaders contradicted public claims that emissions of climate-warming methane are under control."
posted by PhineasGage at 3:01 PM on September 12 [8 favorites]


I have a friend deeply involved in plastic recycling at a multinational company, and he says that the big problem with the recycled plastics available to him is that they stink to high heaven. The main use for this recycled plastic atm is railway pillars, because nobody can go near them.
posted by The River Ivel at 3:14 PM on September 12 [10 favorites]


If only there was a way to make new plastic more expensive to make, so that recycling plastic made more economic sense. Bonus if it could encourage people to drive more fuel-efficient vehicles. cough carbon tax cough
posted by pmurray63 at 3:15 PM on September 12 [22 favorites]


I've been something of a naysayer about recycling and "earth friendly" waste management for a long time. The concept is admirable, but as it became apparent that the cost of recycling some materials could exceed the cost of making new material, it also became obvious that for those materials, it was a sham.

Ok, so Big Oil wanted to fool everyone. The bigger problem is that well meaning people invested in the concept, and wanted to believe it so much, anyone who expressed skepticism was just some asshole who hated the environment, was in the pocket of Big Oil, or some such bullshit. At that point, coming up with real solutions is even harder.

The solution? A solution involves facing some uncomfortable realities about the manufacture, use, and disposal of plastics. And when I say uncomfortable realities, I think they're going to be uncomfortable for environmentalists as much or more than Big Oil.
posted by 2N2222 at 3:32 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]


I do see some conflation out there between plastic recycling (subject of this piece) and recycling in general. Metal and glass recycling is pretty reliable. Cardboard and paper varies hugely depending on local situations and some non-local ones but can be great.

And municipal composting is boss! I wish it were standard everywhere.

I worry that folks will read articles like this and just go back to throwing everything into the trash, vs. maybe tackling plastic use at a policy level (which is what would be needed).
posted by feckless at 3:54 PM on September 12 [31 favorites]


Apparently I have feeling of local pride about this? BC San Francisco has navigated a lot of this better than most places and is on its way to a proper zero landfill situation.

We should 100% reduce plastic use, which we'll need massive policy changes to make happen. But this article, while a great look into the history of some of the BS the oil & plastic industries have used, paints too broad a brush. Recycling still matters! Sorting is solvable! The Ardship of Cambry, your sorting work in the 1980s was not wasted!
posted by feckless at 4:11 PM on September 12 [9 favorites]


it also sounds kinda too good to be true?

Every single proposal for how industrial capitalism can be made environmentally sustainable dot text.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 4:50 PM on September 12 [8 favorites]


If I buy a thing online and it's the best thing ever but it came in plastic packaging, then I give it four stars and a glowing review that ends with "Docked one star for plastic packaging."

Plastic is great. It lasts forever. Using it for single-use purposes is ridiculous.
posted by FeatherWatt at 6:40 PM on September 12 [11 favorites]


We've always known plastic recycling wasn't really happening, at least in the way we hoped.. As an intelligent species we need to evolve beyond making waste products that don't biodegrade, and we need to do it very soon.
posted by Liquidwolf at 6:48 PM on September 12 [5 favorites]


This to me is a regulatory problem rather than a consumer one, and it's clear that as usual big industry did a lot of work to make it seem like the latter.

What I really want to see is a ban on motherfucking single-serving plastic water bottles. Somehow we've got all these straw bans, which . . . I guess makes some people feel better? Why doesn't water come in a can? There's like one company doing a paper carton, and then just flat after flat of water bottles.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:18 PM on September 12 [16 favorites]


Okay, so what do I do with these bags of plastic I have waiting to be recycled?
posted by wanderingmind at 8:46 PM on September 12 [2 favorites]




MeFi: un-costed externalities
posted by fairmettle at 12:49 AM on September 13


It's evident that some plastics can be recycled quite successfully. Ford for example purchases 1.2 billion plastic bottles per year and uses them to manufacture plastic components, not just because it's good for the environment, but because it costs roughly 25% less than using virgin plastic. In fact, it's possible that expanding the use of plastic would help slow down climate change, because of its lighter weight than glass or steel. And there are a number of formerly plastic auto components that have been replaced by organic waste bioproducts - which can usually obtained from agribusiness was extremely cheap.

For plastics which can't be recycled economically, the government should just tax them at point of manufacture and then use that money to subsidize efforts to recycle them.
posted by xdvesper at 4:35 AM on September 13 [5 favorites]



What I really want to see is a ban on motherfucking single-serving plastic water bottles


Yes. And ban the hell out of styrofoam in all forms, especially food containers.
posted by Liquidwolf at 6:49 AM on September 13 [4 favorites]


Okay, so what do I do with these bags of plastic I have waiting to be recycled?

You give them to the municipal recycling program, where likely they then go to the landfill. The only other option is to become a recycling hoarder, which doesn't do anything better for the environment.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:11 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Would peak oil change the economics of this at all? As in, would a scarcity of the raw material of plastic make it worthwhile to do the work involved in recycling existing plastics?
posted by harriet vane at 7:56 AM on September 13


As to recycling in San Francisco, a number of years ago I heard that metal recycling was too successful here and that there was an issue as to where all the cans could go. The solution at that time was to ship it to Nevada, where it was ground up and used in gold refining, a highly toxic process. After it was used, it went into landfill, a toxic dump. This new news combined with the old news, just suggests that recycling in general has been in a lot of cases a front for the usual just dumping the stuff. Back in 1989, I was in Budapest, and was struck by seeing a bunch of people lining up outside a food store holding obviously full bags. As we walked past them, I noticed the bags were full of glass bottles and jars. To be reused. In the food stores there, a whole lot of products were packaged in either cans or jars, all to be recycled, in the jars and bottles case, reused. As a kid, I remember taking back the soda bottles to get our deposit back, and for the bottles to go back to get refilled. Packaging is driven both by cost to the producer and convenience to the buyer. We are just as much at fault.
posted by njohnson23 at 9:21 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


Some folk have been saying this for nearly 20 years now. It's not new news, it's just that nobody wanted to listen to it.
posted by Imperfect at 11:29 AM on September 13 [3 favorites]


I worry that folks will read articles like this and just go back to throwing everything into the trash

Yes, can't we just ease the plastic out of the recycling? It's a problem, ban the single use, bury the rest, fine... but let's not lose focus on the glass, metal and paper, the original recyclables, that we don't need to ship to China to process. We should have local shops grinding up the glass and melting it down, along with the metal, and making new products with these resources locally. The clean paper (not yer damn pizza boxes, you've learned by now to leave 'em out, right?) can also be recycled into newsprint. Thankfully, the unrecycleable Yellow Pages have almost disappeared with the other phone books.
posted by Rash at 12:11 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


Is the pizza box thing still a thing? I lived in a large city in Texas and they specifically said you could include the pizza boxes and that was at least 5 years ago. Maybe it’s location dependent?
posted by LizBoBiz at 1:11 PM on September 13


This to me is a regulatory problem rather than a consumer one, and it's clear that as usual big industry did a lot of work to make it seem like the latter.

Sort of. I hate how some wish to unload the problem on big industry in an effort to deflect blame away.

You give them to the municipal recycling program, where likely they then go to the landfill.

We have a winner here.

One of the biggest things environmental minded people need to get over is the necessity, and desirability, of the landfill, instead of viewing the landfill as a problem to avoid. Here's why. The most effective way to curb materials use is not to directly tax it, because this is typically subject to way too many interests, and end up being too arbitrary and symbolic. It's how we ended up cheerleading for pointless recycling programs to begin with.

Better to pass the cost on to consumers, who will be paying either way. And pass the cost on in terms of disposal costs. Landfills cost money to designate, design and operate. They take real estate, they need to be located far away where people don't want to live. And as demand for landfill space goes up, so do these landfill use costs. When your garbage disposal fees start to make their presence known in your pocketbook, you start to look for ways to mitigate those costs. "Hey, I don't need product X with all that useless, bulky packaging that's expensive and a pain in the ass to throw away!" This puts pressure on vendors to use less packaging. Thus putting pressure on materials manufacturers on up. Save regulation for things most of us can actually agree on, such as illegal dumping, dumping in oceans, disposal by burning, etc.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:32 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


> Maybe it’s location dependent?

I believe it largely depends on what kind of sorting your local recycling facility is willing to do. I wouldn't count on those instructions meaning that the pizza boxes are actually recycled. I think a lot of places have made the tradeoff that less complicated "can I recycle this" instructions result in a higher amount of materials actually being sent for recycling, even if that increases the complexity of sorting. Your local facility may be sorting out compostables from the recycling stream - some do.

My local recycling instructions include basically all rigid plastic containers, regardless of plastic type, and I really struggle with that one because everything I know about plastic recycling even before this article is that only a small number of plastic types are recyclable. Why am I bothering to clean my yogurt containers when I'm like, 95% sure they're not actually being recycled?
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:37 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


What I really want to see is a ban on motherfucking single-serving plastic water bottles


That's cool, what will replace that for people who are out and want water? Assume that I brought water and drank it all. I can easily go and get a bottle of water, but even when every single public water fountain wasn't closed, there weren't that many, they often didn't work, and they were generally tepid instead of cold. Plastic water bottles are no worse than plastic soda bottles, or plastic juice bottles. If you want to ban single-serving plastic bottles, fine, but unless you want to require places that used to sell water bottles to provide drinkable water, all you're doing is switching what is inside the bottles that people buy.
posted by jeather at 1:46 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


If only there was a way to make new plastic more expensive to make..

Plastic is a by-product of oil and gas production, so the supply is essentially free, I would not be surprised to find oil companies happily paying people to take the stuff off their hands.

I think it will take not just large reductions in use, but the almost complete eradication of the petrol and diesel market before the plastic problem goes away.
posted by Lanark at 3:48 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]


I wouldn't count on those instructions meaning that the pizza boxes are actually recycled.

Not to be a broken record, but municipal composting handles pizza boxes really well. (As long as you take out those little plastic tables.)
posted by feckless at 6:16 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


Well good! Glad to see municipal composting gaining ground. I know some places mandate separating out food waste; what a mess that's going to be once it becomes an individual household responsibility.
posted by Rash at 8:15 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]


unload the problem on big industry in an effort to deflect blame away.
Oh no, the poor big extraction industry! Whatever will they do if someone blames them?!

I find this point somewhat confusing in the context of an FPP that specifically talks about how the plastics industry intentionally misled the public for years about the hazards of their product. If I cared about blame, I'd argue that big industry should bear quite a bit of it, but I don't care about blame, or deflecting it, I care about fixing the problem. And I assert once again that it's very much a regulatory problem; neither the consumer nor the industry have shown themselves willing to deal with it.

Plastic water bottles are no worse than plastic soda bottles, or plastic juice bottles.
I completely agree, and I would like to see all of them in aluminum, glass, or biodegradable containers. They're a pet peeve because IME people drink a lot more of the former, although I have certainly known those kinda truck dudes who drink like eight mountain dews a day. Like every time there's a hurricane, I see a lot more people loading up their pickups with flats of single-serving water bottles than any other beverage, including beer.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:58 PM on September 13 [7 favorites]


TIL: Restaurants account for 78 percent of all disposable packaging (article also has some info on biodegradable packaging)
posted by gwint at 6:09 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


This article has upset me at a level I didn't expect. I have spent a lot of time & energy recycling, and thinking I was doing something useful. We really have destroyed our environment for the enrichment of a small number of utter sociopaths.
posted by corvikate at 6:27 AM on September 14 [7 favorites]


what will replace that for people who are out and want water? Assume that I brought water and drank it all.

If I can comfortably bring enough water with me for a nine-mile hike in the hilly desert, you can bring enough water with you for wherever you're going.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 6:29 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]


If I can comfortably bring enough water with me for a nine-mile hike in the hilly desert, you can bring enough water with you for wherever you're going.

Then so can people who want to buy single serving soft drinks or juices or whatever else they get in a plastic bottle. Either single serving plastic bottles are bad or they're not.

Also, you know, things happen. You spill water, or you are out later than you thought, or you leave your bag behind, or whatever. I'm not as a rule a bottled water purchaser, I just drink tap, but I find this argument about single serving bottled water and not single serving anything else odd.
posted by jeather at 7:51 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]


The Planet Money ep about this topic reported that plastic recycling has been promoted and developed entirely by oil companies, who would really rather sell virgin plastics. Recycling programs are used as a way to misrepresent the environmental toll of the materials in order to continue selling virgin plastics. It’s interesting that Ford — an entity large enough to manage their own recycling independent of oil companies — are having success building cars out of recycled plastic.
posted by chrchr at 9:56 AM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Then so can people who want to buy single serving soft drinks or juices or whatever else they get in a plastic bottle. Either single serving plastic bottles are bad or they're not.

Yes, they can, and yes they're bad. Not sure why you're treating this as some big gotcha.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:15 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


Aluminum bottles have been a thing since at least 2011 so the idea that people who are out want water and therefore it's impossible to do without single-use plastic bottles doesn't really hold up.
posted by Lexica at 11:42 AM on September 14


Especially since most people (in the US) seemed to be doing fine without any water bottles before what, about 1998?
posted by Rash at 11:49 AM on September 14 [5 favorites]


What about incineration? If you're already getting some energy from burning fossil fuels, why not let that oil take a detour into being a bottle for a while before being burned? Obviously this may need some new infrastructure, but it seems to deal with the sorting and disposal problem handily. I recall reading that Sweden does a lot of this.
posted by alexei at 12:56 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


I learned about Tulsa burning (some of?) their trash in college. Some plastic burns fine; some is toxic, so there are some issues you have to deal with.

Ironically, the way the trash-burning process was explained to me encouraged me to recycle more. They could separate out scrap metal with a magnet, but aluminum and glass were a big hassle, because they don’t really burn or separate, and every so often some guy had to go in and chisel out all the melted aluminum and glass. So, you know, help that guy out.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:00 PM on September 14 [1 favorite]


Burning plastic releases more ancient carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Plastic just sitting in a landfill does not. All things considered, if you insist on using single use plastic, it is far far better for the world if it sits sequestered in a landfill than if it is burned.
posted by hydropsyche at 2:48 PM on September 14 [2 favorites]


Another possibility for plastic recycling is to turn it back into oil using Thermal Depolymerization , a.k.a. “anything into oil” technology. Also works on any kind of biomatter.

However, it’s an energy intensive process and it would take some really clever application for it not to be just another more expensive way to spew greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. I guess one could imagine a world where abundant power is available and plastic can be converted back to oil and then manufactured into new plastic again. (Our world is not one with abundant power).
posted by chrchr at 5:00 PM on September 14 [3 favorites]


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