The plastic recycling model was never economically viable, but oil and gas companies still touted it as a magic solution to waste, selling the American public a lie so the companies could keep pushing new plastic. While the ad and countless others like it extolling the value of recycling sound environmentalist in nature, they were paid for by the plastics industry and their lobbying and trade organizations.
Americans believed these ads and have been recycling plastic for decades, trusting the discards would be kept out of burgeoning landfills and oceans and reborn as new goods. The reality, however, is that most plastic can't and won't be recycled, reported NPR. According to the EPA, in the last 40 years, less than 10% of plastic has been recycled - and not only in US, but in the whole world.
Up until 2018, most recyclable plastic was shipped to China to deal with, reported Forbes. When the latter banned imports of 24 kinds of waste, including plastic from the U.S., more plastic ended up in U.S. landfills, the news report said. In 2017, 35,370 tons of plastic were produced and 26,820 tons of that was landfilled, the EPA estimated, reported Forbes.
A series of investigative reports done by NPR and the PBS series Frontline this year found that the oil and gas industries — the makers of plastic — knew all along that plastic recycling would never be realistically feasible on a large scale, yet they spent tens of millions of advertising dollars each year telling the public that plastic can and should be recycled.
Internal documents from the 1970s and former executives confirmed that the industry knew all along that recycling at a large scale would never be economically viable because the process costs more than making new plastic, NPR reported. The plastic industry never wanted recycling to work, because recycling was in direct competition with their business of selling as much oil as they possibly could, Houston Public Media reported.
Nevertheless, starting in the late 1980s, the industry misled consumers into believing that recycling could be a magic panacea. Spending $50 million a year, big oil and plastic ran ads, installed collection centers and funded recycling projects and public regulation campaigns to convince the public that recycling works, NPR reported. "Selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true. If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment."
The oil industry makes $400 billion a year producing plastic and is discussing how to increase investment in plastic production given that demand for oil for cars is down.
As the truth about recycling comes out, states and environmentalists struggle to see if the broken system can be fixed at all. While they do that, plastic production is predicted to triple by 2050, NPR reported, and, "once again, the industry is spending money on ads and public relations to promote plastics and recycling." (source: ecowatch.com)
The only way to fix this mess is to be aware and change our habits. We can choose to live plastic free, as life was jus a few decades ago. We can spend some time washing our reusables instead of just throwing away single use plastic, but the result is a cleaner world for us, our children and life on Earth.
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