Scientists have estimated that, since 1950, humans have generated 9.1 billion tons (8.3 billion metric tonnes) of plastic. About 76% of that has ended its useful life and become waste. Of that 7 billion tons of waste, only 9% has been recycled, the rest going to landfills, being incinerated, or choking and poisoning streams and oceans. The U.S. alone produces on average 35.4 million tons of plastic (32 million metric tonnes) per year, according to the EPA – Humans Have Created 9 Billion Tons of Plastic Since 1950.
This is a far cry from the public relations narrative of recyclability. Because the U.S. lacks particular equipment and market interest, most types of plastic are not recyclable, only #1 and #2. And even so, only #1 plastic bottles are regularly recycled, according to a study by Greenpeace – U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability. The Greenpeace report said that plastics #3 through #7, called mixed plastic, are more difficult, more expensive, and more energy intensive to process than numbers 1 and 2. Most single-use retail bags are #4.
Speaking for the Association of Plastic Recyclers, Kara Pochiro, said “What the United States needs is infrastructure equipped to process other kinds of plastic”. But John Hocevar of Greenpeace emphasized a more basic and elegant solution, saying “The really simple answer is we have to stop making so much throwaway plastic” – How much plastic actually gets recycled?.
The unimaginably large amount of plastic materials comes with equally thorny problems:
- ocean garbage patches – Amount of plastic in oceans is a lot worse than thought
- fracked oil and natural gas used to make plastics – Oil-and-Gas Industry’s Toxic Waste Is Radioactive
- pipeline conflicts with the environment – Tar Sands Pipeline that Could Rival Keystone XL Quietly Gets Trump Approval
- dioxin poison from plastic incineration – Plastic Incineration Causes Air Pollution, Dioxin Emissions, Cost Overruns
- micro plastics in our food – New experiments measure how much plastic is in our bodies
- environmental justice impacts from refineries – Urban America’s Slow-Motion Crisis
- endocrine disruption from plastic pthalates and BPA – Endocrine Disruptors
- wildlife poisoning and choking deaths from plastics – Microplastics Pose Major Problems for Ocean Giants
- fossil fuel extraction damage – Canada’s shocking oilsands operation – aerial footage
- fossil fuel climate disruption – How plastics contribute to climate change
But because humans enjoy many of the properties of plastics, many problems are either below the radar or purposely ignored for the benefit of petrochemical companies. Plastics are waterproof and lightweight. Clear plastic packaging is a great marketing tool. Plastics can be formed into virtually any shape (hence the name “plastic”). They make convenient items like paint and clothes and containers. But the biggest reason we tend to overlook the problems is because petrochemical PR has misled us.
An article by NPR and PBS reported that public officials, like most people, don’t want to be told the sad truth that only a tiny fraction of plastics can economically be recycled. Laura Leebrick, a well-intentioned but naive waste hauler, recounted telling a city council that it was costing more to recycle plastic than to dispose of it. They were in denial and said “You’re lying. This is gold. This is valuable”. But NPR explained “It’s not valuable, and it never has been. And what’s more, the makers of plastic — the nation’s largest oil and gas companies — have known this all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite”. One industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis”.
Regardless of the fact of the matter, the public was led to embrace recycling. NPR noted that back in the late 1980s, plastic was in a crisis because of too much plastic trash. The public was getting upset. The genius — and fraud — of the plastics industry was to convince the public that recycling was working. Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic. When they believed the hype, they felt fine about buying more new plastic. This of course was the goal of Big Oil and Big Gas — more new plastic sold meant more profits.
Still, plastic recycling grew slowly. Recyclers were losing money when only soda bottles and milk jugs were brought in. The industry needed a new strategy. Oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the triangular recycling symbol appear on all plastic, even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic. It didn’t — it only made all plastic look recyclable.
With the various numbered recycling symbols, the industry succeeded in gaining widespread acceptance of recycling, even while knowing it is unfeasible. But it became a failure for recycling operators. People began throwing every kind of plastic into recycling bins, even though recyclers lost money on all but #1 and #2. Worse, it became a cost prohibitive sorting nightmare for the operators, but also for communities struggling with choosing source-separated recycling vs mixed-materials recycling. A lack of an industry standard further hampers recycling feasibility because of regional market irregularities, and because of recycling truck and equipment disparities – How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.
Plastic recycling was never intended to work to any degree. Attempts by local communities, retailers, recycling operators, and materials marketers to find a way to make it work were random and mostly on their own. Big Oil and Gas were the only winners. Now with the nose-dive of gasoline and diesel sales, and communities beginning to ban natural gas for all-electric buildings, Big Oil and Gas are shifting their focus to increase plastic production – Big Oil’s hopes are pinned on plastics. It won’t end well.
A large part of their plan is to flood Africa with plastics as an untapped market. Currently 34 of the 54 African countries have committed to phasing out single-use plastic. The lobby group pushing to open up Africa, the American Chemistry Council, has members including Shell, Exxon and Total – Oil-backed trade group is lobbying the Trump administration to push plastics across Africa. The industry mantra has not changed from advice given to Dustin Hoffman in the 1970 film “The Graduate” – In a word, plastics: The Graduate – YouTube.