Editor's note: NPR will be publishing stories from this investigative series in the weeks and months ahead, even as we focus our current coverage on the coronavirus pandemic. But here's a look at some of our key findings. You can watch the full documentary film from this investigation on the PBS series Frontline.
For decades, Americans have been sorting their trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can't be or won't be recycled. In 40 years, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled.
In a joint investigation, NPR and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known that all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite.
Here are our key takeaways from our investigation:
Plastics industry had "serious doubt" recycling would ever be viable
Starting in the late 1980s, the plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars promoting recycling through ads, recycling projects and public relations, telling people plastic could be and should be recycled.
But their own internal records dating back to the 1970s show that industry officials long knew that recycling plastic on a large scale was unlikely to ever be economically viable.
A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic "costly" and "difficult." It called sorting it "infeasible," saying "there is no recovery from obsolete products." Another document a year later was candid: There is "serious doubt" widespread plastic recycling "can ever be made viable on an economic basis."
The industry promoted recycling to keep plastic bans at bay
Despite this, three former top officials, who have never spoken publicly before, said the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of antipathy toward plastic in the 1980s and '90s. The industry was facing initiatives to ban or curb the use of plastic. Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to preempt the bans and sell more plastic.
"There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way," says Lew Freeman, former vice president of government affairs for the industry's lobbying group, then called the Society of the Plastics Industry, or SPI.
Another top official, Larry Thomas, who led SPI for more than a decade until 2000, says the strategy to push recycling was simple:
"The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire, we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products," Thomas says. "If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment."
More recycling means fewer profits for oil and gas companies
In interviews, current plastics industry officials acknowledged that recycling the vast majority of plastic hasn't worked in the past. But they said the industry is funding new technology that they believe will get recycling plastic up to scale. The goal, they say, is to recycle 100% of the plastic they make.
"Recycling has to get more efficient, more economic. We've got to do a better job collecting the waste, sorting it," says Jim Becker, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.'s vice president of sustainability. "Five, 10 years ago, the industry response was a little more combative. Today, it truly is not just PR. We don't like to see [waste in the environment] either. We really don't. We want to solve this."
But the more plastic is recycled, the less money the industry will make selling new plastic. And those profits have become increasingly important. Companies have told shareholders that profits from using oil and gas for transport are expected to decline in coming years with better fuel efficiency and the increasing use of electric cars. Industry analysts expect oil and gas demands from the chemicals industry will surpass the demand from the transport side in the coming decade. Plastic production overall is now expected to triple by 2050, and once again, the industry is spending money on ads and public relations to promote plastic and recycling.
Plastic is now more prevalent than it's ever been and harder to recycle. Gas prices remain at historic lows, making new plastic cheaper than recycled plastic. And the industry now produces many more different — and more complex — kinds of plastics that are more costly to sort and in many cases can't be recycled at all. Efforts to reduce plastic consumption are mounting nationwide, but any plan to slow the growth of plastic will face an industry with billions of dollars of future profits at stake.
Plastic Wars, a documentary by Frontline and NPR, premieres March 31 at 10/9c on PBS stations and online.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly with a story that is not about coronavirus. It's about recycling and plastic and how what we have believed for decades is wrong. The vast majority of plastic cannot or will not be recycled. NPR and our reporting partner, the PBS series "Frontline," have found that oil and plastic executives have known that all along, even as the industry spent millions of dollars promoting recycling and telling people the opposite. In the coming months, we will air stories from that investigation. And tonight, you can watch a documentary starting on "Frontline." NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan is here to tell us more.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: So just help me get a handle on this. The majority of plastic that we have all spent separating out, not putting in the regular trash - it never actually really got recycled?
SULLIVAN: That's right. In the 40 years of recycling, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled. And here's the problem. I mean, anyone can take something plastic and turn it into something else, but the question has always been whether the cost of all that makes sense. I mean, you've got to send a garbage truck to your house, pay someone to sort it out, melt it down. And plastic is made out of oil and gas, and oil and gas are cheap. It's usually cheaper, easier or both to just make new plastic. And a couple - I mean, a couple of the original plastics, basically soda bottles and milk jugs, do have buyers in the U.S. But the vast majority of plastic, even when you put it into the blue bin - I mean, think strawberry containers, yogurt cups, salad boxes, squeeze packets, packaging, all of these things - they do not. They're either landfilled or burned or wind up in the oceans.
KELLY: So why have we all spent all these years believing plastic was being recycled, could be recycled?
SULLIVAN: Part of the reason was China. For a while, it was taking the country's plastic trash and sorting through it for the good bits, like soda bottles and milk jugs. They've now shut their doors. But the other reason is because this is what the public has been repeatedly told. Let me play you this commercial from 1990. It shows a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It may look empty, yet it's anything but trash. It's full of potential.
SULLIVAN: This is one of many ads that ran for years, saying plastic is valuable; plastic is recyclable. But these ads weren't paid for by environmentalists. They were paid for by the oil and gas and plastic industry. And here's where it gets even more interesting. We spent months digging through the industry's internal documents and found that even as oil and plastic companies spent millions promoting recycling, their own documents show they knew that recycling most plastic was unlikely to work. Memos and reports we found to top executives called recycling plastic costly, called sorting it infeasible. One document told officials there was serious doubt that recycling most plastic was ever going to be economically viable.
KELLY: I mean, I get why the plastic industry would promote plastic. I don't why - I don't get why it would promote plastic recycling if they knew it wouldn't be economically viable, if they knew it wasn't feasible on a large scale.
SULLIVAN: And that was the question we had. And we found three former industry insiders who've never spoken publicly before, and all of them said promoting the idea of recycling was a way to sell more plastic. One top official - his name was Larry Thomas - he ran the industry's most powerful lobbying group at the time. He said it was pretty simple. He said the public was turning against plastic, and they needed people to feel good about it.
LARRY THOMAS: If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment. But the manufacturers of resins - they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they want to sell virgin material.
SULLIVAN: And he and other former officials said the strategy worked. Favorability ratings improved.
KELLY: And just briefly, Laura, the public continues to turn against plastic. We've seen these bans of plastic straws and bags, legislation in some states, like California. Where does that leave the industry?
SULLIVAN: Once again, the industry is spending millions promoting plastic and telling people to recycle. In interviews, they said that they are behind this now. The public should believe them, and they're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make it work.
KELLY: Thank you, Laura.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
KELLY: NPR's Laura Sullivan - and you can hear more from her series in the weeks ahead. Starting tonight, you can watch that documentary "Plastic Wars" on PBS stations and online. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.