A Cynical Strategy: Why the American Chemistry Council Spends Millions Promoting Plastic Recycling
By Lisa Kaas Boyle
The American Chemistry Council spends millions to defend the chemicals produced by their members to make plastics. They have hired the same advisors who defended the tobacco industry to formulate a strategy to promote and defend the petrochemical industry. If measured by the difficulty in passing legislation to curtail single-use plastics, and the positive press generated on the issue of plastic recycling, the strategy seems to be working.
At the center of ACC’s strategy is its promotion of recycling as the solution to plastic pollution. This band-aid approach allows the industry to look environmental while continuing with business as usual, making SUPs out of virgin — not recycled — petrochemicals. The ACC knows well that only 5-7 percent of plastics are recycled, and that this figure will probably not grow substantially.
However, SUPs, the majority of plastics, are not designed to be recycled. Instead, SUPs are designed and promoted to be used on the go, and to be dumped whenever and wherever their contents are consumed. Even if SUPs are discarded into a recycling container, they are often contaminated by food waste and rendered unsuitable for recycling, or made of a type of plastic that has no recycling infrastructure. Spending relatively little on promoting recycling plastics offers a big public relations payoff with no real threat to an industry that earns billions pushing SUPs as the foundation of our throw-away consumer culture.
The ACC also knows that even if more plastics are recycled, there is not a big market for recycled plastic. It is usually cheaper for manufacturers to use virgin petrochemical material. Furthermore, the downgraded recycled by-product is routinely sent overseas to China, where it may also end up in a dump or incinerated, after the most recyclable fraction is “cherry picked” out. In short, recycling will never put the ACC members out of business.
All along Southern California beaches, the ACC is promoting recycling with slick advertisements adhered to trash — not recycling — cans. The ad covering the trash cans shows a young girl happily drinking from a plastic water bottle. The text reads: “Plastics. Too Valuable to Waste. Recycle.” The cans are routinely overflowing with SUPs. The rest of the SUPs can be found left behind in the sand and blowing around the parking lot if not already washing into the waves.
However, the insidious part of ACC’s promotion is that trash cans are trash cans — the contents of which are destined for eternal resting in the landfill — and are not the city’s designated recycling bins. Apparently, the plastic the trash cans contain is not valuable enough to the ACC to warrant the effort of recovery because the SUPs in these trash cans are not collected by the ACC for recycling. Furthermore, the ACC has lobbied against bottle bills that would add a few cents to each plastic bottle to encourage returns and recycling efforts.
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Lisa Boyle is an environmental attorney and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.