Plastic makers lied about recycling for decades. What do we do next?

The plastic industry pushed recycling as a solution to waste, while internally dismissing it as technically and economically unviable.
Most plastic is either landfilled or burned—just about 9 percent is ever recycled. E+/Getty

For decades, plastic producers knowingly misled the public about the feasibility of plastic recycling, according to a recent study by the Center for Climate Integrity. The non-profit’s report details how the plastic industry marketed recycling as a solution to plastic waste for decades, all while dismissing it internally as both technically and economically unviable.

This may be a tough pill to swallow for those who grew up hearing about the virtues of plastic in ad campaigns (see: “plastics make it possible”). However, statistically, most plastic is either landfilled or burned—just about 9 percent is ever recycled, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an intergovernmental group. 

Crucially, the Center for Climate Integrity’s report is about plastic recycling—not all recycling. Other materials, such as paper and glass, statistically fare better when you toss them in the recycling bin. More than 68 percent of paper and paperboard was recycled in the U.S., according to 2018 EPA data, while glass has a recycling rate of about 31.3 percent

The Center for Climate Integrity’s study pins the blame not on consumers, who typically shoulder such criticism, but instead on oil and gas companies and the plastic industry itself. The industry’s actions “effectively protected and expanded plastic markets,” the report states, “while stalling legislative or regulatory action that would meaningfully address plastic waste and pollution.” 

In the 1950s, the plastics industry began churning out single-use plastics in a bid to boost profits. This “shift to disposables,” as the report puts it, created a waste problem, and the plastic industry promoted landfilling and incineration in response. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the industry faced growing backlash from consumers over plastic waste and legislation to limit the sale of single-use plastics. According to the Center for Climate Integrity’s report, the industry invested in extensive campaigns to sidestep such bans, convincing the public that recycling was the solution. As a result, worldwide plastic production rose from 2 million tonnes to 120 million tonnes annually from 1950 and 1990, per a Our World in Data report. And it’s soared ever since, hitting 459 million tonnes per year in 2019. The resulting plastic pollution is now everywhere — from the Mariana Trench and Mount Everest to the air we breathe and the food we eat.  

“[Plastic] recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution, as it merely pro-longs the time until an item is disposed of.”

Since its publication earlier this month, the non-profit’s research has struck a nerve on social media, as users highlighted the sheer candidness of the insiders’ quotes cited in the report.

“[Plastic] recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution, as it merely pro-longs the time until an item is disposed of,” a 1986 report by Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group, noted. Eight years later, an Exxon staffer is quoted as saying the oil company is “committed to the activities, but not committed to the results” of plastic recycling—implying the firm is more invested in the optics than the outcomes of recycling. In the Center for Climate Integrity’s report, a bevy of quotes such as these contrast ads published by the plastics industry and related special-interest groups, which perennially boast of advancements in plastic recycling and reinforce the idea of bottles coming back again and again. 

For most plastic waste, however, this concept of plastic circularity isn’t actually reality. Chelsea Linsley, a co-author of the Center for Climate Integrity’s report, offered a blunt summation of the study’s conclusions in a call with PopSci. “These companies have deceived the public and they should be held accountable,” she said. “That is ultimately the message that we want consumers to hear.”

The best outcome, according to Linsley, is that the report serves as a tool for regulatory inquiries and lawsuits. As an example of such action, Linsley cited California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s 2022 investigation into the plastic industry’s marketing efforts, which Bonta characterized as an “aggressive campaign to deceive the public.”

In statements to the press, the Plastics Industry Association dismissed the Center for Climate Integrity’s report. “As is typical, instead of working together towards actual solutions to address plastic waste, groups like CCI choose to level political attacks instead of constructive solutions,” the Plastics Industry Association told the Guardian reporter Dharna Noor, who first covered the report on February 15.

The Guardian points to the needle moving with EPA’s health review and potential ban of carcinogenic plastic ingredient vinyl chloride after the toxic train derailment in East Palestine, a California investigation into fossil fuel and petrochemical producers’ role in “causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis,” and last year’s New York state’s lawsuit against PepsiCo for misleading recycling claims. The latest damning report could lead to similar efforts. 

“These companies have deceived the public and they should be held accountable.”

Crucially, the problem of plastic recycling is not new. “We’re just still having a reckoning,” Dan Coffee, an environmental policy researcher at UCLA who was not involved in the Center for Climate Integrity’s report, told PopSci. While recent studies and China’s 2017 decision to limit plastic waste imports have “unmasked” problems, plastic recycling was “always viewed as a public relations strategy by the industries that are responsible for the greatest amount of plastic production and plastic waste,” Coffee said.

Should you still recycle plastic waste?

“Plastics are a unique challenge for recycling—really entirely unlike any other material,” said Davis Allen, a co-author on the Center for Climate Integrity’s plastics report, in a call with PopSci. Most plastics can only be recycled a few times before becoming too brittle. According to the study, the “fossil fuel-derived chemicals that form the basis of plastic are vulnerable to heat and other processes used in recycling. As the chemicals degrade, they lose their quality and integrity, making recycled resins unsuitable for many manufacturers.” 

In other words, plastic becomes brittle when it’s recycled repeatedly. Different forms of plastic also can’t be recycled together. These shortcomings limit the material’s potential for reuse. 

Recycle your bottles and jugs: Overall, the EPA found in 2018 that just 8.7 percent of plastics were recycled in the U.S. Yet, certain types of plastic containers—soda and water bottles (PET 1) and milk jugs (HDPE 2) in particular—have a higher likelihood of being recycled. As for the other stuff, the “vast, vast majority of plastic packaging that we use has no chance of being recycled,” said Allen. 

Call your local authorities: If you’re wondering how to proceed with this knowledge, one place to start is to check on what your local municipal recycling program currently accepts, suggested Coffee. There are no federal agencies that currently handle recycling and the EPA is not involved. However, you may get some answers on a more local level with state and city offices. “Municipalities are getting a lot better about being realistic about what their providers can and cannot handle, although that varies by geography,” Coffee cautioned. 

Try to use less plastic: You could also try your best to avoid single-use plastics. Allen said in a call with PopSci that he avoids them as much as possible, and carries around a reusable water bottle with him. Still, the researcher argues that consumers should resist the urge to shift the blame onto themselves. “None of us have the option of avoiding plastic, and that’s by design,” he said. “That was the industry’s goal when they began pushing disposable plastics in the 1950s and 1960s, and it’s remained their goal ever since,” Allen added.

Watch for lawsuits, investigations, and bans: Coffee offered a similar message to consumers, contrasting the messaging they’ve seen and heard around plastic recycling for decades. “It’s much more important to focus on systemic solutions,” he said, rather than the daily choices of individuals, which will have “a very marginal impact on this issue.”