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How the Plastics Industry Deceived Us

‘The Fraud of Plastic Recycling’ reveals plastic producers have known for decades that plastic recycling is not a real solution.

This February, the Centre for Climate Integrity (CCI) released a report on plastic recycling. Evidence shows that for decades, the plastics industry knew plastic recycling was ‘virtually hopeless’ yet continued to promote it. 

The History of Plastics

Before recycling, plastics were marketed as single-use. At a conference in 1956 by the Society of the Plastics Industry, now known as the Plastics Industry Association, producers were advised to prioritise ‘disposability’. Producers hoped this emphasis would drive sales. 

In the following decades, the plastics industry continued to promote convenient disposal of plastics in landfills or through incineration. However, in the 1980s, this changed with discussions surrounding bans on disposable plastic products, like grocery bags, to protect the environment. This led the industry to change their marketing and shift to promoting recycling.

The Recycling Lie

Recycling was marketed as the solution to plastic pollution. Instead of plastic going to landfills or being incinerated, plastic could be reused over and over again. But this was a lie.

Each time plastic is recycled, it degrades until it can no longer be recycled. Eventually, all plastic, regardless or whether it is recycled or not, will either end up in landfills or incinerators. 

The report from the CCI reveals that the industry has always been aware that plastic recycling is not feasible and simply prolongs the disposal time. Roy Gottesman, the executive director of Vinyl Institute, conceded that “recycling cannot go on indefinitely”.  Despite this, the Plastics Industry Association established the Plastics Recycling Foundation in 1984 to highlight the sector’s dedication to recycling. 

Following this, they founded a plastics recycling research centre in New Jersey to comply with a recycling law in the state. In 1988 the Council for Solid Waste Solutions launched a recycling pilot Project in Minnesota, shortly after the city council voted to ban polystyrene, or styrofoam.

During the early 1990s, another industry group ran advertisements in Ladies' Home Journal proclaiming: ‘A bottle can come back as a bottle, over and over again.’

In the meantime, industry leaders continued to express privately that recycling was not a genuine solution.

The Legal Consequences

This report comes at a time where there is increased public attention on the plastics industry and recycling. 

Two years ago, California’s attorney general initiated an investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemical producers regarding their involvement in contributing to and worsening the global plastics pollution crisis. 

In 2023, New York state filed a lawsuit against PepsiCo. They alleged the company's single-use plastics violate public nuisance laws. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also announced the initiation of a health review of vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen used in plastic manufacturing, marking the initial step toward a potential prohibition.

The authors of the report suggest that legal action is likely as laws aimed at safeguarding the public from deceptive advertising and environmental pollution may have been violated. This report shows a potential pathway to hold the plastics industry accountable for their deceptive practices, and sets us on the path to slow down the mass production of plastics.


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Assorted Plastic Bottles - Image by mali maeder (ST ref: 1300)

Plastic pollution on beach - Image by Pete Linforth (ST ref: 1301)


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