It all gets thrown out

Recyling plastic? It’s a con job. Has been all along.

The US used to send most of its used plastic to China for recycling, but two years ago China said that’s enough now, and no one else wants it.

But when Leebrick tried to tell people the truth about burying all the other plastic, she says people didn’t want to hear it.

“I remember the first meeting where I actually told a city council that it was costing more to recycle than it was to dispose of the same material as garbage,” she says, “and it was like heresy had been spoken in the room: You’re lying. This is gold. We take the time to clean it, take the labels off, separate it and put it here. It’s gold. This is valuable.”

I never thought it was valuable, but I did think it could be re-used. Maybe a break-even thing, maybe an added expense thing, but still worth doing. But nah.

But 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.

Now why the hell would they do that? Oh I know – so that we would keep buying plastic. So that we would not look at all those yogurt tubs and juice bottles and cringe at the waste and the toxic materials added to the brew.

Yep, that’s why.

The industry’s awareness that recycling wouldn’t keep plastic out of landfills and the environment dates to the program’s earliest days, we found. “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.

Yet the industry spent millions telling people to recycle, because, as one former top industry insider told NPR, selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn’t true.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association and one of the industry’s most powerful trade groups in Washington, D.C., told NPR.

Here’s the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.

In short it’s not worth doing in cash terms so forget it. Forget recycling that is, don’t forget making more and more plastic. Plastic forevaaaaaa!

Starting in the 1990s, the public saw an increasing number of commercials and messaging about recycling plastic.

Messaging that said it’s great, do lots of it.

It may have sounded like an environmentalist’s message, but the ads were paid for by the plastics industry, made up of companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont and their lobbying and trade organizations in Washington.

Industry companies spent tens of millions of dollars on these ads and ran them for years, promoting the benefits of a product that, for the most part, was buried, was burned or, in some cases, wound up in the ocean.

“This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress,” Freeman says, “to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream.”

It’s almost funny, in a way. They got the blue plastic bins going, they got us all using the blue plastic bins, and it was all so that plastic could go right on being dumped in landfills and oceans but we wouldn’t mind any more.

Analysts now expect plastic production to triple by 2050.


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