Science  /  Discovery

Petrochemical Companies Have Known for 40 Years that Plastics Recycling Wouldn't Work

Despite knowing that plastic recycling wouldn't work, new documents show how petrochemical companies promoted it anyway.

For 40 years, plastic and petrochemical companies have tried to convince the public that plastics can be recycled. But they’ve known for just as long that plastics recycling would never work.

A report released last week by the nonprofit Center for Climate Integrity, or CCI, chronicles a “decades-long campaign of fraud and deception” from Big Oil and the plastics industry to promote recycling as a solution to the plastic pollution crisis. New documents show that industry executives pushed plastics recycling despite knowing since the 1980s that it “cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution,” and that recycled plastics would never be able to compete economically with virgin material.

Today, the U.S. recycling rate for plastics sits at about 5 or 6 percent. It has never risen above 10 percent.

The report’s authors liken the plastics industry’s recycling campaign to Big Oil’s tactics to convince the public that its products don’t cause climate change. Many companies have been involved in both efforts, since plastics are made from fossil fuels. “The oil industry’s lies are at the heart of the two most catastrophic pollution crises in human history,” Richard Wiles, CCI’s president, said in a statement.

CCI traces industry support for plastics recycling back to the 1980s, when it was proposed as a response to widespread public concern over the material’s proliferation — especially as litter. With the threat of regulation looming large, industry representatives felt they had little choice but “to recycle or be banned.”

Even then, the industry acknowledged major and potentially insurmountable hurdles to plastics recycling. Most significantly, there was no market for recycled plastic — it was too expensive and low-quality to compete with virgin material. One document uncovered by CCI — a 1986 report from the plastics industry trade group the Vinyl Institute — noted that “purity and quality demands set for many applications preclude the use of recycled material.” In the end, the report concluded that recycling “merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.”

Plastics and petrochemical company representatives repeatedly shared similar concerns at industry conferences, in meeting notes, and elsewhere: that plastics recycling consumed too much energy, that it would only work for a small fraction of plastic waste, and that a quickly growing supply of virgin materials would “kick the s–t out of” recycled plastic prices, as one official of the now-defunct American Plastics Council wrote in meeting notes obtained by CCI.