How the Plastic Industry Scammed the Public
Updated: Aug 4
In the 1980s, the image of plastic in the public’s eye started deteriorating. Plastic materials, rather than degrading and disappearing, were accumulating in landfills and releasing toxic chemicals into the environment. In response to this growing tide of apathy, the plastics industry launched a $150 million public relations campaign to restore its image. Its selling point: recycling. The industry invested in sorting machines, recycling centres and nonprofits to encourage consumers to recycle.
By the 1990s, the public was bombarded with commercials and messaging about recycling plastic. "The bottle may look empty, yet it's anything but trash," says one ad from 1990 showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck. "It's full of potential. ... We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles."
In a 1989 confidential letter, Larry Thomas, then president of The Society of the Plastics Industry invited executives from Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and other plastic manufacturers to help develop the campaign. “The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace. Opinion research experts tell us that it has plum-meted so far and so fast, in fact, that we are approaching a 'point of no return,'” Thomas wrote. “Public opinion polls during the 1980s show that an increasing percentage of the general public believes plastics are harmful to health and the environment. That percentage rose sharply from 56 percent in 1988 to 72 percent in 1989. At this point we will soon reach a point from which it will be impossible to recover our credibility. (Witness what has happened to the nuclear energy industry.)”
Yet internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work – that the majority of plastic could be, and would be, recycled. A 1973 report concluded that it was too “costly” and “difficult” to recycle plastic. A year later, another report stated that there is “serious doubt that it can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”
In the 1980s and 90s, the industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastics. Recycling offered a way out by creating material value. Three former officials described recycling as a way to preempt the bans and encourage plastic consumption. Two birds with one stone.
"If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment." Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry
Few of these projects successfully reduced the landfilling or burning of plastic waste. Most projects publicised by the industry had shuttered or failed by the mid-1990s. Mobil’s Massachusetts recycling facility closed after 3 years. Amoco’s school recycling project in New York lasted only 2. Dow and Huntsman’s popular plan to recycle plastic in national parks was rolled out in only 7 out of 419 parks before funding was cut.
It didn’t matter if these projects failed. The industry had successfully sold the public on recycling. The atmosphere started shifting and became more favourable. But the plastic industry didn’t stop there. In 1989, oil and plastic executives created plastic resin codes. The following year, they started quietly lobbying almost 40 states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic. Some environmentalists even supported the initiative, believing that it would help recycling facilities to sort through the plastic waste.
What it truly did was confuse consumers into believing that all plastic was recyclable. And this misguided belief is still deeply engrained in today's society...