For decades, the plastics industry has touted recycling as a solution to the growing problem of waste, convincing both consumers and policymakers that it could prevent plastic from filling landfills and polluting the environment. However, a recent report by the Center for Climate Integrity reveals that industry insiders, including major oil and gas companies, have long doubted recycling’s viability as a waste management strategy.
This revelation comes from documents dating back to the inception of the recycling movement. At a 1989 conference, the head of the Vinyl Institute openly admitted that recycling was not an infinite solution nor an answer to the solid waste dilemma. It seems that recycling often costs more than producing new plastic, rendering it financially unfeasible.
Despite these economic hurdles, the plastics industry has continued to promote recycling, primarily for its public relations benefits. A note from a 1994 meeting between an Exxon Chemical vice president and the American Plastics Council staff demonstrates the commitment to recycling activities without a genuine commitment to achieving environmental goals.
In response to the report, Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers, criticized its reliance on outdated information and accused it of undermining the industry’s efforts toward sustainability. He emphasized the industry’s target for all U.S. plastic packaging to be reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040, portraying a forward-looking stance on plastic waste management.
The report, titled “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling,” builds on previous investigations that have highlighted the industry’s promotion of recycling despite skepticism about its effectiveness. Less than 10% of global plastic waste is recycled, with the vast majority continuing to contribute to environmental pollution. Critics argue that the recycling narrative has been a tactic to boost plastic sales while avoiding regulations.
As the world grapples with the plastic waste crisis, the United Nations is preparing for negotiations on a global plastics treaty, aiming for a comprehensive approach to plastic pollution. However, there are concerns that the plastics and fossil fuel industries may influence the treaty’s focus, pushing for waste management solutions over reductions in plastic production.
Industry efforts, such as ExxonMobil’s investment in advanced recycling technologies, are presented as solutions to the plastic waste problem. Yet, skeptics question the effectiveness and environmental impact of these technologies, pointing out that the fundamental economics of plastic recycling remain unchanged.
The controversy surrounding plastic recycling underscores a broader debate on environmental responsibility and the need for accountability in addressing the plastic waste crisis.