For decades, consumers have been led to believe that recycling plastic saves on waste. Unfortunately, it’s not true, says Simon Wilson. And that could have big consequences for the oil business.
A new investigation into the history of plastics manufacturing by US journalists (for National Public Radio) has reignited the policy debate over plastics pollution. NPR turned up a wealth of evidence, from documents and industry sources, that producers of plastics have cynically promoted the virtues of recycling for decades – thus encouraging consumers to think it’s fine to use more – all while knowing full well that most plastic (more than 90%) is never recycled. It is far cheaper and more profitable to make new plastic (from oil and gas) than to recycle it. But in order to keep selling new plastic, the industry had to “greenwash” its wasteful image by embracing recycling, according to Larry Thomas, ex-president of a plastics industry trade association. “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” says Thomas. So vast corporate resources were diverted into intricate “sustainability theatre”.