How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled

Planet Money


How did millions of Americans come to believe that most plastic would be recycled when that's not actually true Laura Sullivan is GonNa take the story from here. Okay, it seemed like a good place to start was the plastic industry they make the stuff. Did they know the truth about recycling plastic? I headed to one of the birthplaces of plastic plastic comes from oil. But really comes from the dupont chemical company and some of the plastic industries old records are housed in the Hagley Library. It's this stone building on the grounds of the first dupont family home in Delaware. This is a place that actually used to store sodium nitrate back when Dupont made gunpowder not plastic. There's an archivist with a bow tie a handlebar moustache named Lucas Clawson, and he looks like someone would make cocktails. Lucas wheeled out a cart of boxes. Thank you. Files that documented the discovery of a chemical marvel that changed the world, a product that looked like glass but break a product that could also look like lightweight fluff but keep things hot called Styrofoam and incredible new film that can preserve food for days called. Saran. Wrap there were a couple of clues about recycling inside the boxes from the industry's most powerful lobby group at the time the Society of the plastics industry their job was to lobby for the big oil and plastic companies. So think Exxon Chevron Dow Dupont. And there's this one memo from one, thousand, nine, hundred, seventy, three, the. Movement is just being born, and one of the top people in the plastics industry is talking about how the cost of sorting plastic is high but it seemed like a lot of the documents were were missing I find reference to a memo a report, but then I noticed that someone had drawn a line through it Lucas. Can I ask you a question absolute. Okay. Why? In this section are all. These APPS. So many of these. Cross out because those records are no longer. Here anymore day or not where did they go the society of the Plastics Industry Astra them back think they really yes is an unusual. That doesn't happen often. Do you do know why they took them. Did they say? I, do not know. Okay Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why an industry lobbying group might want. It's records back I did call society the plastic folks and ask them if I could see the records they took they said No. So I headed to another library this time at Syracuse University and they're buried in its tax, our boxes of files donated from an industry consultant. Actually the industry consultant died in the why found the boxes and gave them to Syracuse and inside these boxes. I found what I was looking for a report was sent to top oil and plastic executives in nineteen seventy three. It says, recycling plastic is nearly impossible. There is no recovery from obsolete products. It says recycling is costly sorting. It is infeasible plus it says plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it. So the oil in plastic industry new, they've known for almost fifty years. and. Then I found more confidential memos in meetings echoed decades of this knowledge insight thousands of pages of courtroom discovery. There's a speech from an industry insider in nineteen seventy four when it comes to recycling large quantities plastic, it says there is quote serious doubt that it can ever be made viable on an economic basis. Now. Okay. Sure. Anyone can take something plastic melted down and make something else. But what these documents are saying is that it's expensive, it's time consuming it's chemically problematic and it's just cheaper and easier to make plastic out of new oil instead of plastic trash there are all kinds of names in these documents men who have never spoken publicly before and there was one name I kept seeing over and over he. was, giving speeches at fancy hotels, hosting conferences and Berlin. Phoenix, they called him a bigwig. He was the industry's top lobbyist. Larry Thomas this is the man I had to find but do you know how many Larry Thomas's there are in the United? States. Thousands I'd call say are you the Larry Thomas used to work in plastics? Are you leery Thomas who used to be president of the Society of the plastics industry? And then finally, I'll prompt Merrin the plastics industry no getting around it the BIGWIG himself I'll walk. Do that's for sure. Yeah. My personal views certainly didn't always job with. US I had the quake as part of my job. That's the way it was there. He's retired now on the coast of Florida but I told him I've been reading all about his exploits in the world of plastic. Where would the offices the officers were? What would you think they would be K. Street yes. Twenty Five K. Street Casey was the heart of lobbying in Washington and it was in those offices at top executives in the world's most powerful oil and plastic companies met they had meeting after meeting about a little problem they were having there was just too much plastic trash consumers didn't like it. In one of the documents I found from nineteen nine, hundred nine Larry wrote the top oil executives at Exxon Chevron, Amoco Dow Dupont proctor, and gamble in a bunch of others he wrote the image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate. We are approaching a point of no return. The classic. I was under fire. We gotta do. What it takes to take the heat off. Because we want to continue to make classic equality, they wanted to keep making plastic but the more you make the more plastic trash you get and the obvious solution to this is to recycle it but they knew they couldn't remember it's expensive. It's a great. Discussion about how difficult it was to recycle. They knew that the infrastructure wasn't there. So really have recycling amount to a whole lot. So they needed a different plan. Larry Decides to call a bunch of meetings at fancy hotels. He summons the Society of the plastics people executives Larry doesn't remember the specifics of each particular meeting but one of his deputies at the time Lou Freeman he remembers you could. Get. Back all the layers of my brain. Lou, remembers a bunch of meetings the basic question on the table was. You guys you're our trade association in the plastics industry aren't doing enough. We need to do more. This one dupont executive was telling Lou. It's your job to fix plastics imaging problem. So what do you need? You said, I think if we had five million dollars. which seemed like a lot of money. If we had five million dollars we could. We could. We could solve this problem. And My boss said in response. If you add five million dollars, you would know how to spend it effectively. Well, they came up with a way to spend five million dollars that and a lot more I. Remember this. This is one of these exchanges that sticks with me thirty five years later however long it's been. Anna was You know what we need to do is advertise our way out of it. That was the idea thrown out. The industry decided to advertise its way out of a can't recycle it problem. The possibilities off plastics plastics. From dense. Touted the benefits of a product that after it was used for the most part was headed to a landfill incinerator or even ocean. Look empty yet it's anything but trash it's full of potential. These commercials carried an environmentalist message, but they were paid for by the oil and plastic companies eventually leading to fifteen million dollars a year industrywide ad campaign promoting plastic. So I asked Larry why why spend tens of millions of dollars telling people to recycle plastic when the new recycling plastic wasn't going to work? and. That's when he said it. The point of the whole thing if the public thinks so recycling is working. Then they're not going to be concerned about the environment and if they're not concerned about the environment. Though keep buying plastic it wasn't just Larry in lieu who said this I spoke to half a dozen top guys involved in the industry at the time who all said plan was unfolding and it went beyond at the industry funded recycling projects and local neighborhoods expensive sorting machines that didn't make any economic sense school recycling contests. All of this was done with great fanfare. except I decided to go track down almost a dozen of the industry's biggest projects like the one where they were going to recycle plastic and national parks or the one that was going to recycle all the plastic and school lunches in New York they all failed and disappeared quietly but there was one more part of this campaign, the final piece that did stick around. That recycling symbol with the numbers in the middle this symbol has. So. Much confusion about what is and is not recyclable in the plan to stamp it on every plastic item popped up a lot in the documents I learned of a quiet campaign to lobby almost forty states to require that every single plastic item have this symbol stamped on it. Even if there was no way to economically recycle it, I should note that some. Environmental is also supported. The symbol thinking would help, separate and sort plastic but the industry knew the truth the symbols were causing problems. Warm report told executives in July nineteen ninety-three that the symbol is being misused. It's creating quote unrealistic expectations about what plastic people can recycle. It's being used as a green marketing tool, but the executives decided to keep the symbol anyway. I did reach out to plastic industry folks and they said that the symbols were only meant to help sort plastic and that they were not intended to confuse people but the symbol in the ads in the projects, all of this basically convince people Larry says the idea that the vast majority of plastic can be recycled was sinking in. Say that. After a while the atmosphere seems to change I. Don't know whether it was because people thought that recycling has solved the problem. was that they were just so in love with plastic products that they were willing to overlook the environmental concerns that were were mounting up. It's been thirty years now since most of those plans have been put into place and the public's feelings about plastic have started to shift again, people are reading stories about oceans choked with plastic trash and trace amounts of this stuff inside our bodies, and once again, people are wanting to ban plastic and the survival of the oil companies is at stake.

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