Plastic recycling was never going to work, and the industry knew it
During the 1963 National Plastic Industry Conference, Lloyd Stouffer, who was, at the time, editor of Modern Packaging, proclaimed, "the future of plastics is in the trash can." In the preliminary copy of a report to be presented at the SPI Annual Notional PIastics Conference, Stouffer elaborated that what he meant was that "it was time for the plastics industry to stop thinking about "reuse" packages and concentrate on single use."
For all the public campaigning, recycling is ineffective. Globally, just 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, and it has everything to do with money. And because plastic manufacturing uses fossil fuels—environmental groups now recognise plastic as a major contributor to climate change.
Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association, says what he saw [at the time] was an “industry that didn't want recycling to work.” And that if “the job is to sell as much oil as you possibly can, any amount of recycled plastic is competition.”
Plastics and the post-war economic boom
The first synthetic polymer was invented in 1869, and then Bakelite in 1907. When America went to war, plastics had made television possible, and Plexiglas® had provided an alternative to glass for aircraft windows. However, it was not until the war that plastics had novel uses (skip to page 300)—declared evidence of a chemical revolution "so far-reaching that our very lives might be altered."
During the decades preceding WWII, many industries still emphasised the reusability of plastic containers and packaging. However, Stouffer stated that "the happy day has arrived when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away," proposing plastic packaging makers drop "reusable" from their communications.
In 1953, Keep America Beautiful formed a trade group whose stated purpose is to maintain American communities free from litter. Members included the American Can Company, Coca-Cola, and Dixie Cup—and their early public campaigns, such as "Don't be a litterbug," successfully shifted focus from producer responsibility to the consumer.
This linear proposal was taken up by industry—specifically the glass bottlers, during a time when people drank beverages like beer from returnable bottles. Return programmes were dropped, and advertising reaffirmed that life was more convenient if you could throw packaging away.
By the 1960s, strategic marketing and creative promotion were paying off—as noted by Modern Plastics! "the public are gradually being educated to look upon plastics as a material that is highly desirable." The Society of Plastics Institute—the Plastics Industry Trade Association had strategic partnerships with Good Housekeeping; there were Tupperware parties, and plastics had surpassed aluminium, becoming one of the largest industries in the United States.
Enter the 70s. There was the first Earth Day. People rallied across the United States to put pressure on the government to protect the environment, targeting big oil and the plastics industry. In response to Earth Day in 1971, the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful debuted this commercial, the tagline—"people start pollution; people can stop it."
Big oil misled the public into believing plastics could be recycled
It was not until the 1980s that the plastics industry looked at recycling for the first time seriously. Gary Anderson, a University of Southern California student, designed the Möbius strip-inspired glyph that we recognise today as the recycling logo, part of a student contest to raise awareness about recycling.
And then, in 1988, the Society of Plastics Institute (SPI) developed a system of codes and symbols of their own to facilitate the sorting of plastics that looked similar to the recycling logo. At the time, many States were adopting single-stream recycling programs, a significant component of which is the kerbside pickup of unsorted recyclables. And so, while SPI assigned seven types of plastics a code, not all municipal recycling programs accepted these materials.
Industry officials knew plastic recycling was unlikely to ever be economically viable
During that 1963 conference, it was acknowledged no established procedures for separating plastics from other waste existed, nor were there established markets for contaminated mixed plastics. A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic "costly" and "difficult," stating sorting plastics was "infeasible" and there was “a serious doubt it can ever be made viable on an economic basis."
The Society of Plastics Institute knew and stated that "if the public thinks recycling works, then they won't be as concerned about the environment."
Fact is, plastic is only ever downcycled. Resin properties and performance are degraded during any reclamation process. And the reality is that gas production and fracking increased plastic production, making it cheaper to produce virgin plastics versus recycled plastics. The plastics industry lied to make billions of dollars of profit. Recycling was the industry's response to keep bans at bay in the face of public scrutiny.
China's ban on importing waste stalled global recycling
How was China making money off the exported waste from other nations? China's exports to the United States and other countries globally are far greater than their imports, and so, rather than empty containers, our almost worthless plastic was shipped back. Mass economic growth in China meant that even seemingly useless plastic was a valuable material in their economy. And China had a lot of low-income labour to sort it.
And then, in 2018, China no longer wanted anyone's contaminated recycling. And during that time, no one was investing in infrastructure. Cities were burning plastics, releasing dioxins and other toxic chemicals.
For over seventy years, consumer brands and packaging manufacturers have spent billions on public relations, successfully convincing people that the trash issue and the plastics crisis are solely the responsibility of the consumer. Industry groups and brands are still pushing recycling because it looks like caring about the environment.
Globally, only 9% of plastic waste is recycled while 22% is mismanaged, according to this OECD report. The study points out that recycling natural materials such as paper is much higher. Recycling of paper in 1980 was 21.3% and rose to 68.2% by 2018. The report concludes that recycling plastic is ineffective, but not the recycling of other materials. Plastic toxicity also restricts many pieces of plastic packaging from being repurposed into something that can get utilised for either food or beverage.
More recently, emerging concerns regarding human health problems have been connected to the toxic chemicals released by microplastics. These chemicals are absorbed from the environment or additives used in the plastic production process. Microplastics have been detected in human blood and lung.
Plastics contain additives that determine their properties—stability, colour, and flexibility. Most of these chemicals aren’t regulated, but it’s clear that some of those additives, which end up in recycled plastics, are dangerous.
Brands and governments must adopt policies that reduce plastics' production, usage, and disposal. Legislation, standards, or commonly adopted criteria and certifications can accelerate the shift toward a circular economy where recovery makes economic sense, such as paper or glass reclaim and composting.
There are solutions, including novel materials and material reduction, designing for end-of-life, and revised risk assessment approaches. However, such measures are only effective through the combined actions of the public, industry, scientists and policymakers.
Policies focused on reducing plastic consumption will imply that we are changing the premises upon which we build our relationship with materials and their sources. Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes so that brands have to increase recycling rates and pay for recycling rather than taxes remain a proven tactic for combating plastic pollution. Yet governments are still considering previously abandoned EPR proposals.
READ: Ecoware pioneers full-circle compost solution for Christchurch
Circular thinking: Compost Collect
Compostable packaging provides the benefit of diverting biodegradable waste from landfill to ‘greener’ streams such as anaerobic digestion and composting, contributing to a circular economy. And with 13 facilities and 10 collection partners across Aotearoa, via our Compost Collect Programme, we have effective, reliable and ecological ways of recovering food scraps and packaging for composting.
The compostables industry is still young. Elsewhere we see examples, where materials shift from plastics to compostables and collections destined for landfill are diverted to compost facilities.
This closed-loop solution creates real economic value for these businesses involved where replacing plastic packaging with compostable packaging makes sense where effective recycling measures are failing due to the challenges that remain for treating and recycling food-contaminated plastics.
To date, we have 13 facilities transforming compostable packaging and food scraps into compost as part of our Compost Collect programme. Aotearoa has 98 compost facilities.
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Here, you can also view an overview of the single-use plastics ban with suitable packaging alternatives made from plants.