Report Claims Plastic Industry, Oil Companies Deceived Public About Plastic Recycling

Worker looks at large pile of plastic waste

(Credit: Center for Climate Integrity)

by | Feb 20, 2024

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The Center for Climate Integrity suggests in a recent report that decades of disinformation from oil and plastic companies, specifically false claims of the large-scale viability of recycling to control plastic waste, have directly contributed to the global plastic waste crisis.

The report, The Fraud of Plastic Recycling, includes newly discovered documents combined with existing research, revealing over 50 years of industry knowledge that recycling could not act as a solution to the growing issue of solid waste.

Provided in the report is evidence of major petrochemical and plastics companies like ExxonMobil, the Vinyl Institute, and the American Plastics Council, admitting that recycling simply prolongs the time until an item is thrown away, along with documentation of general industry inconsideration of the lifecycle of plastic products. For example, the report cites the instance of an Exxon employee admitting that the company was “committed to the activities, but not committed to the results” in regard to plastic recycling demonstration projects.

As early as 1980, companies admitted that recycling could not be considered a permanent solid waste solution, according to the report.

CCI: ‘Foundation for Legal Efforts’ Targeting Fossil Fuel, Petrochemical Companies

The Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) emphasizes that fossil fuel and petrochemical companies misleadingly promoted plastic recycling as a solution for decades in order to boost profits and escape regulation, all the while knowing its limits.

CCI said that their report provides enough evidence to back legal action against responsible United States companies and explains that California Attorney General Rob Bonta has already subpoenaed ExxonMobil.

In response to the allegations, Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers, released a statement saying that the plastics industry has invested billions in innovating technologies that may more effectively recycle plastics.

“Business as usual won’t fix the problem, but in the U.S., EU, and around the world investments in advanced recycling can be a game changer to better manage our vital plastic resources,” said Eisenberg in the statement. “Plastics are highly efficient modern materials that are critical to building the sustainable, lower carbon future we all want. We need plastics to meet our renewable energy, clean water, connectivity, and global health and nutrition goals.”

Low Recycling Rates Indicate Current Inability to Recycle Many Plastics

The Environmental Protection Agency has said that plastics are a growing segment of municipal solid waste and found that 35.7 million tons of plastic waste was generated in the U.S. in 2018, representing about 12.2% of overall landfill waste. More recent estimates from a Greenpeace research report found that only about 5% of plastic is recycled in the country as of 2022. While many other materials like cardboard, paper, and metals are highly recyclable and currently maintain high recycling rates, the wide variety of plastics makes the material considerably less recyclable.

Plastics have become a significant contributor to climate change as waste accumulates and single-use plastics continue to circulate — 99% of plastics are derived from fossil fuels at present, and the plastic industry accounts for about 3.4% of global emissions. Further, plastics that are intended to be recycled are often instead shipped to countries without the infrastructure to handle such large amounts of waste.

The World Wildlife Fund found that the impact of plastic on public health and economies can be up to 10 times higher for these low-income countries. The United Nations has also been negotiating a global plastics treaty to address the plastics crisis and plans to release a legally binding agreement later this year.

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