BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. If you are a well-trained environmental citizen, no doubt you separate your recyclables to make it easier for your soda cans and applesauce jars and especially your plastic milk jugs, yogurt cups and shampoo bottles to find new life as car bumpers or traffic cones or whatever. Landfills aren't burdened, plastic trash doesn't clog waterways. And you are righteous because you and your blue bins are doing your part. And because plastic is still the wonder product we've believed it to be from its very beginning.
PLASTIC AD Here they are in our homes, augmenting our comfort, serving our needs. When we take to the open road, we find them again in our car. Plastic, plastic, plastic. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Nobody had seen anything like this.
BOB GARFIELD Laura Sullivan is an investigative correspondent for NPR News.
LAURA SULLIVAN Food could be kept safe for days, you could see through it, but it wouldn't break. Nobody could conceive of a product like that. It changed the world and it was a huge part of the economic growth of our country. With it came this growing problem of where is all this stuff going to go?
BOB GARFIELD As she reported late last year for NPR and PBS Frontline, the oil and petrochemical industries’ answer has always been to tell the public that plastic is recyclable, even though that has never been economical or feasible. Rather that than admit the truth: that the vast majority of our plastic trash is and has always been dumped, burned or buried in our backyards or in someone else's. That first became clear to Sullivan during a reporting trip to the current destination of so much American mixed plastics – Indonesia.
LAURA SULLIVAN What was so shocking to me was to walk around in people's neighborhoods and see our plastic trash, not the stuff that was thrown into the trash bin, but the stuff that we threw into the blue bins dumped in people's neighborhoods. What we ended up finding out was that the vast majority of plastic is never recycled. Less than nine percent of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. And even the stuff that we think we're recycling by putting it in the blue bin is heading to countries like Indonesia where they are sorting it. Sort of. Kind of. But they really just want the good bits, which is the plastic bottles in the milk jugs and then in some cases dumping the rest.
BOB GARFIELD It was an "aha!" episode for you.
LAURA SULLIVAN Yes.
BOB GARFIELD It turns out that plastic manufacturers and the oil industry are way past "aha," when did they first know that recycling plastic was just economically unsustainable?
LAURA SULLIVAN From the very beginning. So what we found in hundreds and thousands of pages of documents all the way back to the 1970s was that they knew from the beginning that recycling plastic, in the words of one of their documents, was "never going to be economically viable". It was difficult to sort, there were too many kinds of plastics. The public was getting uneasy with plastic. There was so much plastic trash everywhere.
BOB GARFIELD There was this iconic public service announcement in the 60s and 70s showing some litter on the side of a road and a Native American man looking at how we have despoiled the environment and a tear flows down his cheek.
RECYCLING AD Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution, people can stop it. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Actually, he was an Italian man from New Jersey, I believe, so he was a Native American, but the whole commercial was itself paid for by the oil and gas industry. They got behind this public relations campaign. In a lot of cases, sided with environmentalists saying you got to pick up the trash, but the point of this message was that it's the public's responsibility to clean up this problem.
BOB GARFIELD We weren’t just part of the problem. We were the solution, we could recycle.
DUPONT AD We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles instead of filling valuable land. At Dupont, we make the things that make a difference. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN Their messaging from that time was twofold. One, they told the public that plastic is amazing, don't worry about its bad side. And two, if you have a trash problem, you can recycle it. And the two together were a powerful message to the public that there's nothing wrong with this product, that if you're going to complain about it, look to yourself, don't look at us.
BOB GARFIELD These ads portrayed a false reality, but it wasn't just ads, there were other reinforcements everywhere. Like on the bottoms of milk jugs, those friendly little triangles that seemed to say, oh, don't worry, you'll recycle me.
LAURA SULLIVAN Exactly, what you see in the 90s is these public relations campaigns, we looked at 12 of them. All of them had fallen apart and shuttered within five years. Stuff like we're going to recycle all the plastic in national parks, it made it to, you know, seven out of 400 and some national parks before they cut funding. We're going to recycle the plastic in New York schools, and that shuttered as well. The plastic bench outside your grocery store. This is made out of plastic, recycled materials. Nobody would ever spend the kind of money it costs to actually produce that bench. Then, the broadest campaign of all happened at about the same time. All of a sudden, recyclers across the country who were trying to recycle metals and glass started getting inundated with plastic waste. They say that what happened was if you flipped all these containers over, there was the recycling symbol with the number in it and you would think, well, why would they put that on there? Well, some of the documents that we found show that the plastic industry put this recycling symbol with the number in the middle on the bottom of plastic. They say they want it to help the public sort plastic. But what ended up happening was it made everybody think all plastic is recyclable. And all of these containers and tubs started inundating recycling companies and they were they couldn't take this trash anymore. Environmentalists fought the plastic industry for years trying to get them to take the recycling symbol off and they have refused to do so. What we found is a document that found that they knew that this was a problem all along, that this was confusing the consumer, that it was greenwashing, that it was making the plastic appear more recyclable than it really was.
BOB GARFIELD We've been talking about, til now, 20th century messaging, but the scheme seems to have crossed into 21st century reality as well. Messaging that says if we only work together as a community, we can solve every problem. All we have to do is just keep innovating.
LAURA SULLIVAN When I went back to the oil and gas and plastic industry this time and said, OK, what is the plan now? It's been 40 years. Less than 10 percent of all plastic has ever been recycled. What are we doing now? The answer was, well, we're going to recycle it all. When I sat down with Chevron Phillips and I sat down with the head lobbyist for the oil and gas industry, they both said our plan is to recycle all plastic by 2040. Same pitch that they made 40 years ago. Except now plastic is more difficult to recycle than it's ever been. There's more of it. There's hundreds of more different kinds of it. And oil and gas is cheaper than it's ever been as well, so the economics are even worse than they've been. And so how are they going to do now what they were unable to do before? They basically said technology is going to save the day. We're going to find a way. They say that they're now going to be putting 1.5 billion dollars into this campaign to clean up the trash and recycle the plastic. And they have a new ad.
PLASTIC AD The world we know finds a way to overcome. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN There's kids on the beach and then people picking up trash.
PLASTIC AD And we have the tools. We have the people that can change the world. [END CLIP]
LAURA SULLIVAN I sat down with two of the people who had put together the original ads from the 90s. One of them, Larry Thomas, the former top official in the oil and gas industry, said that they're right back where they started.
BOB GARFIELD All right, Loreta, up to now we've been talking about plastic waste, but this hour we're focusing on carbon. So I wonder if you could tie it all together. Please remind us of how much greenhouse gas emissions are attached to the manufacturing of plastic each year.
LAURA SULLIVAN Well, think about it this way, the World Economic Forum found that the manufacture of four plastic bottles releases the equivalent greenhouse gas of driving one mile in a car. And we're producing billions of these, let alone all the other kinds of plastic that we're producing. There is a greenhouse gas price to pay for plastic. And not only the creation of plastic, but in the recycling of plastic. And in the reality of burning it or landfilling it that causes greenhouse gases as well. So there's no escaping what plastic does to the environment, and it's increasing production that's only going to grow exponentially.
BOB GARFIELD All right. One last thing, Laura. I presume you consider yourself a good citizen of your community and if your country and of the world, right?
LAURA SULLIVAN I try. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD You've got those blue bins at your place, right?
LAURA SULLIVAN I do.
BOB GARFIELD Do you fill one with plastic?
LAURA SULLIVAN Oh, so I get into the grocery store sometimes and I feel nothing but defeat and nothing but confusion over what I'm supposed to do, and I know this subject. And I don't know how to not use plastic. I do recycle, you know, the things I know what the recycling company in Indonesia said was really the only things they wanted, which were soda bottles and milk jugs. I put those in my blue bin. Everything else I put in my trash can because I don't want them to land in somebody's neighborhood in Indonesia.
BOB GARFIELD Laura, thank you.
LAURA SULLIVAN Thanks so much for having me.
BOB GARFIELD Laura Sullivan is an investigative correspondent for NPR.
That's it for this week's show On the Media is produced by Micah Lowinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Eloise Blondiau and Rebecca Clark-Callender with help from Alex Hanesworth. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited... By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineer this week was Adrianne Lilly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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