22 Feb 2024

Plastics recycling was a green-washing lie all along - report author

12:59 pm on 22 February 2024
Bales of compressed plastic at the  OJI Seaview Materials Recovery Facility in Lower Hutt

Bales of compressed plastic at a materials recovery facility in Lower Hutt. Photo: RNZ / Ana Tovey

Lies about how effective recycling is were used to help drive plastic sales, the author of a damning report says.

The US-based Center for Climate Integrity found the majority of plastics cannot and never will be recycled because of technical and economic reasons.

The report revealed the world's plastic industry knew for decades but still continued to promote it as the best option.

It comes just weeks after all New Zealand district and local councils moved to standardise recycling - with only plastics 1, 2 and 5 now accepted in kerbside recycling bins.

Lead Author Davis Allen told Nine to Noon the promotion of recycling was a strategy to sell more plastic to avoid facing backlash over plastic waste in landfills.

"The industry recognised that as a market issue back in the middle of the 20th century and viewed disposability as the answer to continuing to grow their markets.

"If people were throwing plastics away, if they ended up in the garbage wagon, that mean that people were buying new plastics," Allen said.


Plastic bottles are one of the most common items put out for recycling. Photo: 123rf

Initially there was a lot of resistance to throwing packaging material away after one use, he said, but that all changed when about 80 small children suffocated on plastic dry cleaning bags, prompting disposability in 1959.

But in the 1970s concerns about plastic overflowing in landfills and the impacts of incineration arose at a time when the industry was promoting it heavily.

Allen said recycling was not even on the radar because the industry recognised it was not likely to work long-term.

"The process of collecting plastics, sorting them, cleaning them, preparing them to be recycled is very expensive.

"And then most problematic of all really, recycled resins are of lower quality and almost always cost more than virgin resins or those residents made from fossil fuels. Plastics degrade through the process of recycling. That's inherent to the material.

"They're competing against material that's better and cheaper."

Tourists generate more trash in small island developing states - and 80% ends up in the ocean.

Scientists and environmentalists have been increasingly focused on plastics waste in our environments. Photo: Oleg Doroshenko/123RF

Recycling popularity started to pick up in the 1980s when the "chasing arrows" symbols become the globally recognised sign for recycled plastics.

In the 80s, despite the industry being open about plastics going into landfills and being incinerated, it caused a lot of backlash from the public who wanted better solutions.

But they were not open about recycling limitations publicly, Allen said.

Plastic flakes, washed and broken up, ready to become semi molten before being extruded into plastic sheets for reincarnation as another plastic item at Flight Plastics.

Plastic flakes, washed and broken up, ready to be reused in manufacturing. Photo: Supplied Wellington City Council

"The reality is that, in all likelihood, had they been realistic about the viability of recycling, it may have led to significantly less plastic production and obviously that would have hurt their business.

"In one document from the Vinyl Institute, which was a trade organisation from 1986, they said recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution, as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of. Similarly, the director of the Vinyl Institute in 1989 said recycling cannot go on indefinitely and does not solve the solid waste problem."

The rate of plastics recycling does not meet the massive demand of plastics production, Allen said.

"If people believed that it could be recycled, if they kind of were even able to hope when they then something in the bin that it might end up being recycled, then that made the industry less likely to face extreme backlash."

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