Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I do my best to try and be a good citizen. I’m sure that most of you do too. And there are certain things that we do because we’ve been told that it makes a difference. I do them because if we all do them, we can create a better world. So I don’t litter, I obey the rules of the road and I recycle, I recycle a lot.
See I grew up in the 1990s when reduce, reuse, recycle branding was at its peak. Those little blue arrows forming a circle were everywhere in my school. There were public service announcements on TV. When I got home the whole bit, it was drilled into me. So now 20, 30 years later, I toss everything in the blue box, especially plastic.
If it got those arrows on it anywhere in it goes, and you probably know by now where this is going. The past few years have seen shipments of our recycled plastics returned to Canada’s shores. Countries overseas have simply stopped taking it. See, it turns out most of the plastic that we tossed in the recycling box never got recycled.
Almost none of it did. That’s bad enough, of course, that the effort we all thought we were making to help the planet wasn’t working. It’s not great, but that’s not the worst of it. All of that effort was never going to help the planet. And according to a new investigation, the people behind that gigantic PR question, they reduce reuse, recycle the TV PSAs, all of that. They knew it wouldn’t help, but they told us to recycle anyway. Why do you think they did that?
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Laura Sullivan is an NPR news, investigative correspondent who led a massive investigation. Hey, Laura.
Laura Sullivan: Hi, how are you?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m doing well, thanks. Can you start by kind of giving us the scope of this project and maybe just, where did it begin? What was the germ behind it?
Laura Sullivan: So it’s really interesting. It was a couple of years ago when China shut its doors and everybody started talking about how recycling wasn’t working and where was all this plastic going? And it turned out that most of it was getting landfilled, and it started raising this kind of question of like, why is it suddenly broken now?
You know, I like most people sort of grew up believing in recycling. I mean, this is, you know, more, you know, kindergarteners recycle, adults recycle, more people recycle, then vote. I mean, it’s just, you know, it was sort of raised on this sort of idea of, you know, good people recycle. And so you do this thing your whole life, and I couldn’t figure out why it was suddenly broken.
Okay. Fine. China was shutting its doors, but this stuff was valuable. Right? I mean, we were always told, like, don’t throw it out, it has such value. Everybody wants it. There’s so much you can do. And it wasn’t just that we were talking about, you know, specifically, you know, about metals or paper. What everybody was talking about with plastic.
I had really thought that, you know, I was very much an aspirational recycler through all kinds of stuff in the bin, thinking that somebody was doing something with it and that it had, you know, this kind of value. When we got out onto the road, we realized that it did not have any value. And then in fact, the vast majority of plastic not only is being landfilled or burned, but it always has been. And in all of these years, in 30 years of recycling, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled. And so what I couldn’t figure out is if it’s always been that way, if it’s always been sort of a failed kind of process, cause at nine, 10%, you’re really, you really, haven’t made a big dent in this plastic trash problem. Why do we all think that it worked? You know, why did we all think that plastic recycling worked when, when it doesn’t? That really just started this journey of trying to understand why do we all think that this worked when it didn’t and who was behind that? And that’s what led us to the oil industry.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, why don’t you tell me the story of the origin of the recycling programs? Like where did they come from originally?
Laura Sullivan: So we decided to go back and if you’re going to go, try to figure out where recycling came from, where recycling plastic came from. You got started with the plastics industry.
Now plastic is made from oil, but really it’s, you know, it’s made from the DuPont chemical company and Chevron and Exxon and, and, uh, Proctor and Gamble companies like that. So we decided to go back and look at some of their records and that led us to a series of archives. But we started looking through their records saying, what did they know about the recyclability of their product?
You know, plastic was this chemical marvel that took on the world. I mean, it was like this, this thing that looked like glass, but it didn’t break. It could keep food, you know, safe and edible for days. It was this incredible, it was like magic had hit the world and it, and, and it changed the world and the way that we even interact with all the stuff in the world.
And so surely we thought they must know whether or not plastic is recyclable. And so we started looking through all these records and what I was shocked to find is that as far back as the 1970s, the oil and gas industry, the plastic industry knew that there were all these problems trying to recycle plastic.
And that in some of these documents were stark. I mean, they basically said this can’t, this can’t be done. One speech to, from an industry insider said, you know, it is unlikely that the vast majority of plastic will ever be, you know, recycled on any sort of economic scale. Another one called recycling costly, sorting the plastic and feasible.
And then a lot of these reports that went to top executives of the oil and gas companies at that time said, look, plastic degrades every time you try to recycle it. So maybe you can do it once if it’s, you know, a really old fashioned plastic, like a soda bottle or milk jug, but you’re not going to be able to do it again.
So at best you’re really, even if you do take all your soda bottles and make them into Patagonia jackets or make them into other soda, you know, a new soda bottles with other plastic, you know, put into that, you’re still, it’s just a momentary stop on the way to the landfill.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If they knew all that way, way back then, why did these programs move forward? What’s the benefit?
Laura Sullivan: So that was the second big question is how they knew this to be true. They knew that this plan, that all the recycling, the vast majority of plastic was a pipe dream. And so why have we all spent all of these years trying to recycle plastic?
And that led us to trying to track down all of the folks that were in the documents. There were all of these people, men at that time, they were all men, that ran, you know, sort of at the top level of the plastic industry. And, I went and tracked down some of the folks that were there and ended up interviewing three of them on the record who were some of the top officials in the plastic industry, in the eighties and nineties.
And what they said was that back at that time, they had a problem. People are really turning against plastic. You know, this is the late eighties and there’s just so much plastic trash. On the one hand, it’s this incredible material. On the other hand, people are tired of it, littering, all this stuff, filling their trash cans.
They don’t know what to do with all this single use plastic. And they’re starting to say, is this too much? And people are saying, we’ve got to ban plastic. We got to cut back on it to use. And they were under fire and there are records in these files that show, you know, the top lobbyists for the plastics industry saying, you know, we need to act now, we’re at a point of no return. It says, you know, this guy’s name was Larry Thomas. He wrote to the top officials at Exxon and Amoco and Dow and DuPont and Proctor and Gamble. And he said the image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate. And he calls all of them to these sort of meetings in Washington and fancy hotels.
And he brings them all together and they have to figure out what they’re going to do.Now, they all know. Larry Thomas and a couple of the others that were in these meetings and were there at the time, told me that they knew that, you know, the obvious answers were okay, we’ll just recycle all of it.
Everybody will love it. But they knew that wasn’t going to work because they had all those reports. They had all this information and they knew it was never going to work on a vast scale. So what they decided to do instead was advertise their way out of it. And if you remember back into the 1990s, there were these iconic commercials that people grew up with, you know, about the benefits of plastic and this incredible material, plastic.
And then at the same time, this incredible push to recycle it. And they would have nonprofits and school recycling contests, and they would have all these expensive sorting machines that the industry paid for that didn’t make any economic sense. It was like a million dollar machine that, you know, would, you know, run through plastic and sort it all out. And they would make, you know, a thousand bucks, you know, off this stuff. And it ended up, you know, sort of figuring out that what they did at that time was sell the public on the idea of recycling plastic so that they could keep selling plastic. And that for me was one of the most stunning things about this investigation. And this podcast that we did on Planet Money was that, you know, they knew all along that it wasn’t going to work, but they told the American public to do it anyway.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So you’re saying that all those PSAs I grew up with and at my school we had those little recycling signs as stickers that you could stick on your binders or wherever.
Like it was, it was a thing. It was the early nineties. That was all ,first of all, a lie, but second of all, paid for by oil companies.
Laura Sullivan: A significant portion of it was paid for by the oil companies, including the plastic benches outside of grocery stores that are made out of quote unquote plastic bags, which don’t make any economic sense.
I mean, if you’re going to buy a bench, you’re not going to spend however many times more for the plastic recycled bench than you would just for the new bench. So, but they have a big sign on it, which makes you believe that somewhere in the world, everybody’s taking plastic bags and making benches out of them.
You know, and that this is a good, you know, it’s just dependent on the consumer to believe that they want this recycled material and pay more for it. Those, you know, the men at that time that I talked to said that there was a feeling that they wanted it to work. They hoped it was gonna work.You know, they would go out and, you know, try to set up all these recycling programs, hoping that maybe this would sort of magically work itself out.
And maybe if they could get recycling started that it would takeoff somehow, and the economics would just poof, you know, suddenly work, but it never did. And, two of the men said there was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was going to work in a significant way. That’s what he told me. And, they were, you know, they, I think a lot of them, these are the lobbyists for the one on the street.
They were paid to sort of help the oil industry out of this crisis. And I think they feel, you know, sort of conflicted about this time at this point and, you know, feeling like ,they help the industry out of this crisis in the nineties. And then everybody put it aside for about 20 years while ,you know, China came in, swept in, picked up all the plastic trash, and it turns out they were just sorting through it for the milk jugs and the soda bottles to the good bits.
And they were either burning or burying, or possibly dumping the rest of the plastic trash too. So it didn’t really get, you know , the curtain didn’t get unpeeled until a couple of years ago when China said, actually we can’t make this work environmentally and we can’t make it work economically, so we don’t want this trash either.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell us a little bit about that just for people that may not have paid attention to that at the time. What happened a couple of years ago?
Laura Sullivan: So China, I mean, China had been taking. All of this plastic, trash from the United States. The ships come over full of stuff, we buy it and then they go back empty.
So it was really easy to put all this plastic trash almost for free onto these ships and send them over to China where they had very inexpensive labour and lots of labour who could pick through all of the plastic and sort it out. And, you know, break it down into like, here are the soda bottles and here’s the milk jugs and here’s the good stuff, and here, and here’s all the stuff with the plastic we can’t do anything with. And then they would melt those down because the thing about plastic is you can’t, anybody can go ,anybody can take anything and put a piece of plastic in their microwave, melt it down and reform it into something else.
But the thing is that you can’t mix plastics together. You can’t take a soda bottle and melt it down with a strawberry container. It’s a chemical mess and you can’t do anything with that. So you have to separate all the strawberry containers. You have to separate all the soda bottles ,you have to separate, and there’s hundreds of different kinds of plastic.
So someone’s got to sit through there, you know, sorted out that’s expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s a problem. And new oil is so cheap. It’s so cheap to make plastic out of brand new virgin oil that, you know, you get to the point where it’s, why bother? Why bother making plastic out of plastic trash, when you can just make it cheaper and easier and cleaner out of the new oil that’s being pumped out of the ground?
And so this is just a market force that has existed for three decades. That has, it’s a, it’s a foundational problem to recycling plastic that has never been resolved. And these men in the nineties were saying when they were going to try to do it, and they were going to try to get into people’s homes and maybe they didn’t get the curves going, but at the same time, they couldn’t get it to work.
And I interviewed one man, Ron Liesemer who, you know, whose job was to get recycling going into people’s homes in their neighbourhoods. And he set out with high hopes that he could get recycling plastic off the ground. Now he also says they did it because they were facing so many bans in local neighborhoods like Minnesota and New York.
And so they ran out there and they set up these recycling programs and they said, no, no, you don’t need to ban this stuff. Look, just recycle it. And then the public was happy and the bans went away. The problem is that all of that plastic never ended up getting recycled, you know, less than 10% of it has ever been recycled, and usually just only once or twice before it has to get up in the landfill. So even he said, you know, that he hoped it would work, but that it even, you know, but they just couldn’t get it done. And I went and looked at a dozen of their really high profile programs, the kind that you’re talking about from the nineties, from growing up, you know, all of this recycling fever that environmentalists got on board with good intentions saying, great,
yes, let’s recycle. Let’s get everybody recycling this stuff. We didn’t have to use so much of it. And they got on board with it and it just took off, and so much of that funding though came from the oil and gas industry. And I went and looked at like 12 of their most significant projects. They were going to recycle all the plastic and national parks, and they were going to recycle all the plastic and school lunches in New York and all of these big things that came out with big fanfare.
They, all of them shuttered or failed within five or six years in the nineties and quietly, you know, went away .
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: At what point, and this is kind of a delicate question, I guess. Is there a line between, you know, not knowing and hoping it would work out and doing it with the best of intentions and et cetera, et cetera, and, you know, lying to the public to preserve your business interests? Because I realized that this might be more on one side than the other, but like the similarities to the tobacco companies are not that far away here.
Laura Sullivan: There’s a, it’s interesting you say that because some of this did remind me a little bit of that as well. And I think that for the lobbyists, you know, I think like Larry Thomas will say, you know, look I was, he said, I was the hired gun. You know, I was called in, I was hired, I was the hired gun. This was not my plan. I was just there to implement. And he said, I did not always agree with the thoughts and idea of the industry I was hired to represent, but that was the job and I was paid to do it.
And he tried to keep the plastics industry sort of out from under the fire. But I think that that from, you know, from the folks that I talked to, there was a recognition that recycling the vast majority of plastic wasn’t working, that they didn’t have of any sort of ability to do that. But that they hoped that the benefits of plastic would outweigh the trash problem and would outweigh the environmental concerns. And Larry Thomas said that it was easy because the public loved plastic by the nineties.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Laura Sullivan: And they’d be, they fell on, I love with the cheap, easy nature of this plastic. It’s all over our lives. And he said, I don’t know if it was that they thought that everything was getting recycled, or if that they loved plastic so much that they were no longer concerned with the environmental problems that were mounting up. And so I think that these were, you know, these were guys that were sort of on the periphery of a plan, you know, that they didn’t create, but that they now look back on and don’t agree with.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Did you put this question and your findings to industry executives who are still in the industry today?
Laura Sullivan: Yes, so we took all of this too. We went down, I went down and talked to the vice president of sustainability for Chevron Phillips. He was this very earnest man. He really wants to solve this issue. And so I asked him, well, okay, so what are we going to do? What’s the plan? You know, what is the plan to deal with the plastic trash problem?
Now we know it hasn’t worked for 30 years, this recycling thing. So what are we doing?And he said that Chevron Phillips’ plan is to recycle 100 percent of all of the plastic that they make by 2040. And he says this, you know, without flinching, he really means this, when he was saying it, that’s how I felt interviewing him.
But I asked him, how are you going to get there? How are you are you going to get to a hundred percent? You’ve never gotten past nine in 30 years. How do you get to a hundred? And he said, well, we’re going to really focus on better education, better sorting, better machines, technology, you know, and maybe even some regulations.
And it just, you know, that’s the same plan that’s been underway for 30 years. So I, went and talked to the head of the lobbying group now at the time, the vice president for plastic, for the American chemistry council, Steve Russell. And he said, okay, and I said, look, is this everybody’s plan? Is this what we’re doing? We’re recycling a hundred percent? He said, yes, that is the plan. We’re going to recycle a hundred percent of the plastic we make. And he also said, it’s going to be different this time. We really mean it this time, you know, but it’s like at the same time that they’re saying this, and they’re putting hundreds of millions of dollars, they say behind this, and that is true, they are. New programs to pick up trash and recycle trash and, you know, they’re even putting out new ads to get people to recycle the trash. But the problem with this is that there’s more plastic trash now than there’s ever been. They are making more of it than they ever have. Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.
Plastic is harder to recycle now than it’s ever been because it’s more chemically complex. You’ve got squeeze packets that have three layers in, toothpaste tubes that have two layers in it. Sometimes your Tide bottle, even, which was the gold standard of recycling now have like a lot of them have multilayers inside them. And so you can’t really recycle them anymore. It’s harder to recycle plastic now than it’s ever been.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: But they all still have the symbol on it.
Laura Sullivan: Yeah. So to segue into that, I’ll just tell you though, but the one thing that got me most of all about this idea that they, that the industry’s plan is to recycle a hundred percent of the plastic they make is that if you recycle a hundred percent of the plastic you make, why would anybody need to buy your oil and gas?
So it’s hard to believe an industry that says it wants to put itself out of business in such a way, or make such a significantly less amount of money than they could if they just sold fresh gas and oil. So they said, check back. We promise. We really mean at this time. But back to those numbers. So yeah, on the bottom of these containers, one of the most interesting things I found in all of these documents That we sort of go through in the podcast is that, that all of these numbers at the same time that these ads are on the air and this big initiative to get people to love plastic and recycle plastic is going on, there’s also, the plastic industry is also quietly lobbying forties, almost 40 States to mandate that this plant, that the symbol, the international recycling symbol be put on every single piece of plastic.
And they were successful. They got it into all these different states until every single one had to follow it. And at this point, you know, a number of recyclers started freaking out. We talked to one in San Diego, this guy named Corey Smith, he was one of the original recyclers out in San Diego.
And he said, I was out there one day and everything was going fine. I didn’t really want to recycle plastic cause I couldn’t make any money off of it. But I said, okay, look, give me your soda bottles and milk jugs. Because the customers there are watching plastic ads. They want to recycle plastics. He says, look, you can give me your soda bottles and milk jugs.
That’s it. I’m going to lose money on them, but I’ll take them cause it makes you happy. And I’ll, you know, I’ll make up for it with the metals and the paper. So he does that, but then he goes out one day and all of a sudden, his bins are full of trash, plastic trash that he doesn’t want. Yogurt containers and toothpaste tubes and all this stuff.
And he’s like, what is happening? Why is everybody putting all this stuff in? I told you soda bottles and milk jugs. And he gets out there and he’s looking at all the trash, he’s flipping it all over. And he sees the international recycling symbol on the bottom of all this plastic. And he said, he knew immediately what happened, that everybody was confused, that everybody said, Oh, well, the yogurt has it, and so does the milk jugs. So I’ll just throw them both in, looks great. Glad that recycle it all now. And he called all of his fellow recycling friends all over the country and they all said, yes, we’re having the same problem. We don’t know what’s going on. They figured out that it was the plastic industry and the lobbying groups that had done this and had put this symbol on all the plastic.
And they went, and for years, this went on for years, they argue with them, they met with them, they had a big, you know, meeting groups and they said, please, anything but the recycling symbol, could you just cause, could you just put a number and the plastic industry told them and also told me that the symbol was only ever meant to help sort plastic.
It was to help the recyclers sort out this from that. And you know, and things like, but they said fine. You can help us quote, unquote sort the plastic, that’s fine. Put numbers on it, put whatever you want on it, but don’t put it in the international recycling symbol. Could you put it in a square? Could you just not, could you just put the number on it and not have a symbol of any kind? And the industry said no and they fought for years, and they lost. And for 30 years, we’ve all been looking at the international recycling symbol on the bottom of all plastic, even though it does not mean that the plastic can be economically recycled.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, this is where, I kind of wanted to end up because I still throw all my plastic in the recycling. I don’t know what else to do with it. It feels wrong to throw it in the garbage. Even though I know, you know, I was paying attention two years ago when China stopped accepting it. I know it’s probably not getting recycled, but there’s no other good option.
Laura Sullivan: I gotta tell you, after this story, when I’m standing in the grocery store and I’m looking into my cart, I feel nothing but defeat.
I don’t know what to do either. What I will tell you, and this is just me, but I know that soda bottles and milk jugs gave a market in this country and that they will be turned into at least once, something else. But the rest of it, I throw in the trash because I spent a lot of time in Indonesia and I saw where our quote unquote recycling was ending up and it was ending up in people’s neighbourhoods and in the ocean.
And it is so heartbreaking just to walk through these neighbourhoods and see what looks like an American grocery store or in, you know, Australia. Stuff was all over the neighbourhoods too, and these dumping grounds and people’s neighbourhoods. And after that, I just thought until I can know for sure that this is actually going to be turned into something else, I just put it in the trash. And that’s when we went out to Rogue recycling and disposal in Oregon, you know, she said, she’s the woman who Laura Leebrick, who runs the facility. One of the managers that facility out there said, you know, that when she realized that she couldn’t find anybody to take anything but the soda bottles and milk jugs, that she felt like she had been lying to people. She felt like she had been lying to the customers unwittingly, but she just felt like the customers were counting on her to do something with the yogurt containers and she couldn’t do anything with them. So she buries them. They’re landfilled, all other plastic is landfilled. And she said that at least when it’s landfilled, you know it’s not ending up in a developing country where they’re even less equipped to deal with it than we are.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So my last question then is what happens next? And is there a potential path forward? Let’s put aside for the moment though, I’m sure we’re both hopeful, the idea of a hundred percent of plastics being recycled by 2040. That would be great, assuming that doesn’t come to pass. What needs to change the messaging? Do we need to start talking about banning plastic again, like is that the only way forward?
Laura Sullivan: One thing that struck me is that in the beginning of the environmental movement, it was reduce reuse, and if all else fails, try to recycle it. And that message got co-opted in large part because of the oil and gas industry and the money that they threw behind the final R, the recycle.
If there is an awareness that recycling plastic is not working, maybe the shift, maybe the attention will shift back to where it was originally: reduce and reuse. And pull it away from this idea that there’s an easy solution where you can use as much plastic as you want, and it doesn’t have an environmental impact because it’ll get recycled. The biggest difference right now from the 1990s to right now in this period now is whether or not the public still believes the oil industry when it says it will recycle all the plastic that you buy, so go buy some more. And if the public no longer believes that, and when you are standing in the grocery store and you are looking at your takeout container and you are looking at your bags and you think I just used this for 30 seconds, and now I’m going to throw it out. At least, you know now that’s what’s happening to it. And I think in some way, I think that will change the way the consumer looks at plastic.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I hope so, it certainly started to change my mind. Thank you so much for this today, Laura.
Laura Sullivan: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Laura Sullivan, investigative correspondent for NPR news. That was The Big Story. For more big stories head to the big story podcast.ca. Look us up on Twitter at the big story. FPN, drop us a line via email, the big story podcast, all one word, all lowercase @rci.rogers.com. Head to your favourite podcast platform and leave us a review, Apple, Google, Stitcher, or Spotify.
I usually say I don’t care, which, but we are so close to 1000 reviews on Apple and I would like to get there, so use that one. Claire Brassard is the lead producer of The Big Story. Ryan Clarke and Stefanie Phillips are our associate producers and Annalise Nielsen is our digital editor and I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening. Have a safe weekend. We’ll talk Monday.
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