Planet vs. Plastics
Plastic Recycling is a Lie
November 15, 2023
Plastic consumption has quadrupled in the past 30 years, and is expected to triple in the next 30. Meanwhile, global plastic recycling rates have failed to reach two digits. Less than 10% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled.
While many of us are doing our part to save the planet and dutifully putting our plastics in recycling bins — it is nearly all one big charade. Why? Because recycling bins do not take your recyclables to fancy facilities to actually recycle them. In fact, just 5% of U.S. plastic waste is properly recycled. Globally, the plastic recycling rate is slightly higher at 9% but both of these numbers indicate that the effort you take to carefully sort your recyclables from your trash is almost for naught because most of our plastic ends up in either landfill or the environment.
The carefully constructed promise of recycling is nearly all a lie manufactured by the plastic industry. The dream of recycling was invented by them to distract us from the very real issues of plastic pollution. Which is why California’s attorney general has opened an investigation accusing Big Oil of perpetuating the myth that recycling can solve the plastic crisis through its decades-long disinformation campaign.
California’s attorney general claims that the fossil fuel industry has benefited financially from misleading the public by promoting the idea that plastic could be recycled, thus manipulating the public into buying products containing or utilizing plastics.
Big Oil was aware that recycling was not a realistic solution back in 1974, when an industry insider revealed there was no economically viable way to recycle most plastics. So how did the lie of recycling take hold? Before we get to that, we have to understand Big Oil and its role in plastics.
Plastics, Big Oil, and the Recycling Lie
Big Oil is the name attributed to the West’s largest oil companies — the same oil industry that is invested in plastics, which are largely made from petrochemicals. The fossil fuel industry makes $400 billion a year producing plastic. With energy demands shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy, it is an industry that recognizes and has communicated repeatedly to its shareholders that future profits will increasingly come from the production of plastics. In its simplest form, plastic equals profits.
But in the late 1980s, public opinion began to shift and polls showed an increasing percentage of the general public believed plastics were harmful to the environment and public health. This widespread concern caused Big Oil to start spending hundreds of millions to sell the idea that the majority of plastic could in fact be recycled. So began a massive disinformation campaign which even included the building of recycling centers, ready to deal with the new plastic recycling boom. Many of these plants closed in less than five years.
In 2019, the oil industry launched a billion dollar campaign, The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, that cynically promoted recycling and clean up efforts, instead of calling for a limit on plastic production and finding plastic alternatives. It helped shift the blame for plastic waste off the producer and onto the consumer.
Misappropriation of the Recycling Symbol
Coinciding with these ad campaigns and the lie of an expanding recycling industry, came the birth of the Resin Identification Codes (RICs) – also created by the plastic industry. RICs are the numbers, 1 through 7, imprinted on the bottom of plastic products that communicate to consumers the composition of the plastic. It was a brilliant piece of marketing because the industry realized that the average person would see these RIC numbers as proof there was a vast and viable recycling industry out there to be supported. It duped us into believing that plastic is recyclable.
In truth while, 30% of number 1 and 2 plastics are recycled, numbers 3 through 7 are much more difficult to be repurposed. In fact, numbers 6 and 7 are virtually impossible to recycle.
The RICs symbol was adapted from the Möbius strip-inspired recycling logo consisting of three arrows. The three arrow logo was actually conceived of to promote genuine recycling. But the RIC numbers are purely there to trick the public into thinking recycling is achievable and therefore working. Because the three arrow recycling symbol was never trademarked, it has been hijacked by the industry backed RIC number system and become a tool for the lobbyists working for Big Oil.
Lobbyists for Big Oil
The fossil fuel industry has incredibly effective lobbyists that work against any kind of plastic bans at the federal, state, and local levels. Over 1,500 of these lobbyists work simultaneously with cities, universities, and environmental groups which are fighting against the fossil fuel industry. Many of the cities that employ these double agent lobbyists are some of the worst affected by climate change.
The lobbying sector is largely unregulated and likes to keep their client’s details private. So, an environmental group could be working with a lobbyist, who is also contracted to work with a member of Big Oil at the same time. However, because there are so few legal restrictions regarding this lobbying scenario, the lobbyist is not required to declare this duality.
Not All Recycling is a Lie
Although the world struggles to recycle plastic, other materials like aluminum, paper, and glass are recycled successfully. Aluminum is one of the most recycled and recyclable materials used today. Recycled aluminum saves producers 95% of the energy needed to produce new aluminum. Nearly 75% of all aluminum ever produced is still in use today in the U.S alone.
Glass is another recycling success story. Germany and Switzerland both have approximately a 90% recycling rate for glass. The U.S. has remained relatively stagnant with around a 30% glass recycling rate but the higher numbers in Europe show that productive glass recycling is achievable. Glass recycling also benefits from the fact that it can be done endlessly without a loss in quality. Given these statistics, is it not time to return to using materials like these once again much more prolifically? Materials such as glass and aluminum are truly energy efficient because they can be so easily recycled.
Stop Plastic Production
Today is America Recycles Day, but Americans can’t effectively recycle because of the fossil fuel industry backed lie that our most ubiquitous material, plastics, can be effectively recycled. Big Oil assured us it was ok to continue to buy and use plastics because they were going to be reused, which is not true. We’re inviting you to sign the Global Plastics Treaty petition to call on the United Nations and governments around the world to commit to a 60% reduction of all fossil fuel-based plastic production by 2040. The fight, Planet vs. Plastics, has only just begun — and it’s a fight we cannot afford to lose.