How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

NPR’s Planet Money recently released an episode where they tell the story of how big plastic companies convinced the public to recycle more. At that time plastic producers were under a lot of pressure as consumers and regulators worried about the endless stream of plastic garbage. To address this issue, the industry launched a large campaign to promote recycling.

The catch is this: everybody in the industry knew that recycling was completely infeasible (at least at that time). The first problem with recycling is that there are too many different plastics that all need differing recycling procedures. Sorting is difficult and costly. The second is that plastics tend to degrade over time and throughout the recycling process. Even if recycling is possible, it usually is not economically viable. Producing new plastic is just so much cheaper.

The goal of that campaign then was not to increase the amount of plastic recycled. Instead, plastic companies wanted to convince the public that plastic was actually a green product – regardless of whether or not the plastic thrown away would actually be recycled.

The campaign was very successful. Huge amounts of plastic ended up in recycling bins (but were of course not recycled). Public opinion of plastic changed to the better and people started worrying less about plastic trash. Pressure on the plastic industry eased.

This story began in the USA in the 1990s. I haven’t yet had the time to look into the situation in other countries and can’t tell whether recycling is now much more feasible than it was before. But I found this story one of the most interesting cases of green-washing I have come across so far.

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