We’re getting fooled about recycling

Founding Mother, Chard & Stripes

Plastic recycling wasn’t promoted to work but to perpetuate plastic.

In the late ‘80s, public concern about plastic waste was high and efforts to ban certain plastics were gaining steam. To preempt bans and keep business strong, the plastics industry spent millions on advertising to tout the virtues of their products and to push recycling.

But the top brass knew recycling wouldn’t amount to much.

And that’s coming from their mouths.

“If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

Former president, Society of the Plastics Industry

In Plastic Wars, an investigative documentary from FRONTLINE and NPR, bigwigs in plastics at a crucial point in history—including Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of Plastics Industry (SPI) and self-described “front man for the plastics industry”—speak publicly for the first time.

Lewis Freeman was VP of government affairs for SPI, which was then the plastic industry’s chief lobbying group. He says, “There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way.” And research from the EPA shows it hasn’t:

In nearly 40 years, less than 10% of U.S. plastic has been recycled.

Yet conscientious (and actively deceived) Americans persist in sorting their trash—rinsing some before putting it in a special bin with care—thinking it’s being kind to Mother Earth.

I am one of those Americans, even as the former Toxics Campaign Scientist at Greenpeace who’s known for decades that recycling vinyl (#3) is a hoax. Only recently did I learn it’s ALL a hoax.

To be kinder to the environment, think “Reduce” and “Reuse” over “Recycle.”

Recycling isn’t truly happening and focusing there puts the problem of plastics on consumers instead of where it mostly belongs: on producers of plastics.

To be sure, we consumers are part of the plastics problem:

We’re not the most intentional of shoppers and send tons of plastic packaging to landfills. And whether we know it or not, plastic we “recycle” goes to Indonesia to be burned in someone else’s backyard, producing toxins inhaled by people who are out of sight and mind.

That’s what heart-warming recycling ads—funded by the defenders of plastics—don’t tell you.

Advertising making the plastics problem a consumer problem is likely to become relentless to keep pace with plastic production, which is set to TRIPLE by 2050.

That’s also the year the U.N. estimates there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

Each year, 18 billion tons of plastic enter the ocean—the same as a garbage truck load every minute.

Don’t believe for a second that recycling will make a meaningful dent in that.

Though there is one place recycling seems to be a success:

In the plastics industry, which is recycling crisis management tactics to keep policymakers and consumers chasing the wrong things so their business can boom.

For the inside scoop, watch Plastic Wars for free on YouTube.

Dr. Mary-Elizabeth Harmon is a scientist turned storyteller and Founding Mother of Chard & Stripes, a “school” of prosperity making and word-of-mouth marketing platform for kind people, products and businesses in food, fashion & more. Subscribe to her newsletter here.