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New report shows plastic companies knew recycling would be useless

Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental and public health issues of our time. A new investigation shows that the companies producing it knew all along that recycling programs would be pointless.

For the last 50 years, we have been advised to recycle plastic waste whenever possible, yet a new report claims that oil companies and plastic producers knew this effort was pointless.

Published by the Center for Climate Integrity Research (CCI), the paper combined recently acquired internal documents with existing research to prove that recycling was nothing but a scheme to allow the single-use plastics industry to expand.

The problems we are dealing with now – ever-growing landfills, polluted oceans and rivers, microplastics and nanoplastics – were all consequences that plastic companies foresaw long ago.

That these organisations introduced a band-aid solution they know would be fruitless is illegal and could lay the groundwork for a future lawsuit, the CCI argues.

If brought to court, lawyers will likely accuse the involved corporations and trade groups of knowingly introducing materials and products to the public despite knowing the immense risks they could pose to both human health and the environment.

Holding these organisations accountable would stand to stop misinformation, uncover more truths about plastic production, and to get them to pay for damages they have caused.

Pulling facts from the report

The report incorporates a quote from a plastic production company called Vinyl Institute (VI), written in 1986: ‘Recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution [to plastics], as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.’

Just three years later, VI’s founding director Roy Gottesman reiterated this point at a conference. He said, ‘Recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.’

In fact, VI was one of many plastic companies that promoted the universally known symbol for recycling – three arrows that form the shape of a triangle.

In 1994,  other major industry players – including the Vice President of ExxonMobil Chemical – admitted that the company was committed to producing plastic and promoting recycling as an activity, but wanted no parts in helping to actually recycle it.

Then in 1995, the American Plastics Council noted that recycled plastic material would never be able to outperform virgin plastic, which is cheaper, easier, and much quicker to manufacture.

Fast forward to today and it’s as if they wrote the script themselves. Virgin plastic production has not slowed (in fact, it’s still on track to increase) and finding ways to upcycle most plastics remains an uphill battle.


The plastic nightmare

From the outset, the short-term ‘ease’ offered by plastic products ended up creating a lot more work down the line.

Many countries introduced waste disposal laws that companies and households are required to follow. This involves sorting plastic into different bins that are collected separately and sent to specialised plastic recycling facilities.

However, most of these facilities are often not well-equipped to deal with all kinds of plastic. Even when plastic is recycled (about 9 percent of global plastic is) its quality degrades massively after being used once or twice. It also becomes more toxic and releases more microplastics each time it is repurposed.

It only seems right that key members of the plastic industry are held accountable for their lies and actions. Whether or not they will … we’ll just have to wait and see.