Critics call out plastics industry over "fraud of plastic recycling"

Jan Dell is a former chemical engineer who has spent years telling an inconvenient truth about plastics. “So many people, they see the recyclable label, and they put it in the recycle bin,” she said. “But the vast majority of plastics are not recycled.”

About 48 million tons of plastic waste is generated in the U.S. each year; only 5 to 6 percent of it is actually recycled, according to the Department of Energy. The rest ends up in landfills or is burned. 

Dell founded a non-profit, The Last Beach Cleanup, to fight plastic pollution. Inside her garage in Southern California is all sorts of plastic with those little arrows on it that make us think they can be recycled. But, she said, “You’re being lied to.”

Those so-called chasing arrows started showing up on plastic products in 1988, part of a push to convince the public that plastic waste wasn’t a problem because it can be recycled.


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Davis Allen, an investigative researcher with the Center for Climate Integrity, said the industry didn’t need for recycling to work: “They needed people to believe that it was working,” he said.

A new report, called “The Fraud of Plastic Recycling,” accuses the plastics industry of a decades-long campaign “…to mislead the public about the viability of plastic recycling,” despite knowing the “technical and economic limitations that make plastics unrecyclable” at a large scale. 

“They couldn’t ever lie about the existence of plastic waste,” said Allen. “But they created a lie about how we could solve it, and that was recycling.”

Tracy asked, “If plastic recycling is technically difficult, if it doesn’t make a whole lot of economic sense, why has the plastics industry pushed it?”

“The plastics industry understands that selling recycling sells plastic, and they’ll say pretty much whatever they need to say to continue doing that,” Allen replied. That’s how they make money.

Plastic is made from oil and gas, and comes in thousands of varieties, most of which cannot be recycled together. But in the 1980s, when some municipalities moved to ban plastic products, the industry began promoting the idea of recycling as a solution.  

Allen showed us documents and meeting notes they obtained from public archives, and from a former staff member of the American Plastics Council. “What we see in here is a widespread knowledge that plastics recycling was not working,” he said.

At a trade conference in Florida in 1989, an industry leader told attendees, “Recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.”

In 1994 an Exxon executive told the staff of the plastics council that when it comes to recycling, “We are committed to the activities but not committed to the results.”

Allen said, “They always kind of viewed recycling not as a real technical problem that they needed to solve but as a public relations problem.”

The industry just launched a new ad campaign, called “Recycling is real,” and says it’s investing in what it calls advanced recycling technology.

The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, responded to “CBS Sunday Morning” in a statement, calling the Center for Climate Integrity’s report “flawed” and “outdated,” and says “plastic makers are working hard to change the way that plastics are made and recycled.”

Jan Dell doesn’t believe plastic will ever be truly recyclable: “It’s the same process they were trying 30 years ago, and my response to that is, it’s science fiction,” she said.

Plastic production is set to triple by 2050, and with so much plastic waste piling up on land and sea, more than 170 countries are working on a United Nations treaty to end plastic pollution.

In a letter to President Biden about the negotiations, the plastics industry says it opposes any bans on plastic production, but supports more recycling.

To which Dell says, “The only thing the plastics industry has actually recycled is their lies over and over again.”

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Story produced by John Goodwin. Editor: Emanuele Secci.

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