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“There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis”: NPR

photo by RitaE courtesy of

Plastic is made from oil, mostly. There are organic and biodegradable alternatives, like paper and cardboard. There is also an alternative to Styrofoam which is even more organic– fungi (think mushrooms) can be induced to develop into any desired solid form, e.g. a cushiony package that holds sensitive electronics. The final product is steam-sterilized and is biodegradable, just like a mushroom.

With traditional plastic, however, oil companies refine it and sell its products to plastics makers who create things that go to myriad companies that use it to package almost everything we buy. The problem with plastic is that it does not degrade quickly. Even thin plastics take hundreds or thousands of years to crumble into microscopic bits.

Ever since plastic was developed for widespread use, it has been a problem to dispose of. In the late 1960s and early 70s, companies began to develop means to recycle plastic on a large scale, but they discovered problems. First, plastic can only be melted down and reshaped a couple of times before the building blocks become contaminated or degraded to the point where they are unusable.

Second, it is much cheaper to create new products out of “virgin” (made from refined oil building blocks) plastic than it is to go through the process of cleaning, sorting, storing, transporting, melting down, purifying, and reshaping old plastic into recycled products.

The following is a summary based on an investigation, which was published by National Public Radio (NPR) (and station KQED) in an article on their website on September 11, 2020, titled “Is Plastic Recycling A Lie?” A documentary called “Plastic Wars” was also presented by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) on March 31 and can be viewed online.

These problems have been known in the plastics industry for many years. The NPR and PBS investigative agency Frontline had no difficulty tracking down insider statements going back to the early 1970’s that admitted these basic problems were practically insurmountable. One example was the statement that, “There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis.” This was from a 1974 speech by an industry insider.

There was mounting popular dis-satisfaction with the buildup of plastic trash from the 1960s through the 1990s. The discontent reached a point in the late 1980s where something had to be done or the public would no longer accept the use of plastic in everyday life.

The industry created a public relations campaign that sought to make people believe that the majority of plastics could and would be recycled. This employed the usual means: advertising and statements by public figures, backed by programs that made it appear as if plastic was, indeed, being recycled.

This publicity program was paid for by representatives of the oil industry and the plastics industries, partially through trade organizations such as the one now known as the Plastics Industry Association. The industry spent $50 million a year for ads “promoting the benefits of plastic.”

One aspect of this was the development of mandatory labels on plastic items, which are now on all packaging. This happened through a bill that was sponsored by the plastics industry and had little difficulty passing the halls of Congress because it was pushed by plastics lobbyists, not environmentalists.

Another aspect was the separation of plastic and recyclable items from household waste. Separate bins were made mandatory in most jurisdictions. Goals were set, to reduce the volume of solid waste sent to landfills. Most of these mandatory aspects were pushed by plastics industry lobbyists. Many were supported by mainline environmentalists.

All was well until a couple of years ago China started to refuse to accept shipments of plastic trash. It turns out that the vast majority of plastics were sent to China, where they increasingly piled up instead of being actually recycled. When this stopped, the value of plastic waste plummeted.

Now the plastic trash that we can’t send to China is economically just trash again. Most of it is going back into landfills. On the whole, just 9% of all plastic was ever recycled.

The basic problem here is a lack of infrastructure (despite some efforts by the plastics industry) for recycling and the tremendous development of infrastructure for making new “virgin” plastic items. If the price of oil goes down, as it surely will when we cease to burn oil for power and transportation, then virgin plastic will continue to become cheaper.

Why has this happened? Because of economics. Without a government mandate to recycle, possibly with some incentive such as a bottle deposit, it is economically just not worth it to recycle.

The result is ever more plastic that winds up in landfills, blowing in the wind, and landing in the oceans. Microplastic is building up in the environment, and life on Earth is going to have to cope with it somehow.

One way in which life will cope is in the growth of micro-organisms that digest plastic. Already, isolated microscopic lifeforms are showing up to do just that. With the volume of microplastics in the environment increasing every year, look for more and more of these microbes coming to a waterway near you.

Or our government could mandate the compensatory development of infrastructure to recycle plastic to the extent possible, regardless of the expense. It would cost more, but the Earth would be vastly better for it. What good is economics when our Earth becomes a wasteland?

One Comment leave one →
  1. 2020-09-16 10:24 AM

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post…


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