Plastic industry knew recycling was a farce for decades yet deceived the public, report reveals

Plastic producers should ‘pay for the damage they’ve caused’ after decades of deception, a new report says.
Plastic producers should ‘pay for the damage they’ve caused’ after decades of deception, a new report says. Copyright Canva
By Angela Symons
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Plastic producers should ‘pay for the damage they’ve caused’ after decades of deception, the report's authors say.

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Recycling has been promoted as a solution to plastic waste management for more than 50 years.

But big oil companies and the plastics industry have known for decades that it’s not a technically or economically viable solution, a new report reveals.

Combining existing research and recently revealed internal documents, the report by the Center for Climate Integrity Research (CCI) could form the foundation for legal action, its authors say.

“When corporations and trade groups know that their products pose grave risks to society, and then lie to the public and policymakers about it, they must be held accountable,” says CCI President Richard Wiles.

“Accountability means stopping the lying, telling the truth, and paying for the damage they’ve caused.”

Plastic producers misled the public about recycling

The report unveils the fraudulent marketing and public education campaigns used to promote plastic as recyclable, despite knowing that it is not a workable solution.

These strategies allowed the single-use plastics industry to expand, while avoiding regulation to effectively address waste and pollution, the report says.

“Recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution [to plastics], as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of,” reads a 1986 report by industry trade group the Vinyl Institute (VI).

The group’s founding director, Roy Gottesman, highlighted the issue again in 1989 at a conference, warning, “Recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.”

Why is plastic so hard to recycle?

With thousands of different types used in everyday products, plastic is expensive to collect and sort. It also degrades after just one or two uses, becoming more toxic each time it is repurposed.

Despite knowing this, oil and plastics companies pushed forward with campaigns promoting recycling.

Picture the triangle of ‘chasing arrows’ symbol to denote that packaging is recyclable, for example. This was introduced even though the VI had noted that the system was unlikely to work due to the trend towards composite containers, made up of multiple types of plastic.

“We are committed to the activities, but not committed to the results,” Exxon Chemical Vice President Irwin Levowitz said in a 1994 meeting with the American Plastics Council (APC).

The following year, internal notes from an APC staffer acknowledged the impossibility of recycled plastic competing with virgin materials. “Virgin supplies will go up sharply in [the] near future [and] kick the shit out of PCR [Post-Consumer Recycled material] prices,” they wrote.

How could companies be held legally accountable for lies about plastic recycling?

This public deception could be a violation of laws designed to protect consumers and the public from corporate misconduct and pollution, according to the report’s authors.

“Attorneys general and other officials should carefully consider the evidence that these companies defrauded the public and take appropriate action to hold them accountable,” says Alyssa Johl, CCI’s vice president of legal and general counsel.

It adds to a growing list of complaints against plastics producers, including a 2022 California investigation into ExxonMobil’s role in the plastic pollution crisis, and New York suing Pepsi Co in 2023 over plastic pollution.

Is it still worth recycling plastic?

The best way to reduce plastic pollution is to avoid single-use plastics entirely. However, it is still better to recycle plastic at home than throw it away.

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Around nine per cent of the world’s annual plastic waste is successfully recycled, and with many companies committing to using recycled plastic in their products, it can find a purpose.

Under the European Strategy for Plastics in the Circular Economy, the target is that 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics find their way into products in the EU by 2025. Almost 26 million tonnes of plastic waste is generated in Europe every year.

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