Why ‘Plastic Wars’ Got Me Riled
Is plastics recycling a decades-old scam or fraud? New PBS documentary takes a myopic view of broad-based industry trends.
I’ve calmed down now, but I was fuming after viewing “Plastic Wars” on TV Tuesday night, March 31. I was not the only one aroused by that one-hour episode of the documentary series “Frontline” on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS). As if it had unearthed a new “DaVinci Code,” the film breathlessly announced a theory that plastics recycling is little more than a decades-old scam or distraction of public opinion while the chemical industry covered the earth and clogged the seas with its ever-expanding output of throw-away packaging. It prompted a “strongly worded statement” by Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS). He wasn’t pleased, either, though not entirely for the same reasons I was pacing up and down my living room, while my wife urged me to forget about it and have a cup of tea.
A documentary film asks who’s to blame for plastics recycling not living up to the industry’s promises over the last four decades.
To be fair, I have to say the show was beautifully produced, and the on-screen reporter and co-producer, Laura Sullivan, came across as an intelligent and fairly reasonable person, who didn’t charge into the scene with her chemophobia flag flying, like some other plastics “exposés” that I’ve seen. (Anyone remember “Blue Vinyl”?)
So what got me so heated up about this film?
Only half of it was annoyance at one more case of inadequate reporting on plastics by persons with little to no understanding of this industry. The reporter was so proud of having dug up documents from almost 50 years ago about the early failures of plastics recycling to live up to the promises made for it. “Who cares about what recycling did or didn’t accomplish in the 1970s?!” I retorted to the TV screen, while punching my sofa. It’s obvious that plastics recycling is serious business today. We have a special Recycling Supplement coming out next month, along with the May regular issue, detailing how major brand owners plan to dramatically increase their use of recycled plastics, and how processors of all kinds are gearing up to meet that demand. As we reported last fall, the world’s premier plastics show, K 2019 in Düsseldorf (225,000 visitors, over 3300 exhibitors), was thoroughly dedicated to furthering the “Circular Economy.”
Contrary to the impression one might get from the film, plastics recycling in the U.S. is not trivial and has come a long way in recent years. A few statistics (indulge me here): Plastic bottle recycling in the U.S. amounted to 2.852 billion lb in 2018, up from less than 500 million lb in 1990 and 1.5 billion lb in 2000. Non-bottle rigid plastics recycling topped 1.35 billion lb in 2017, up from a little over 300 million lb in 2007. And recycled post-consumer plastic film and bags exceeded 1 billion lb in 2017, up 54% from 649 million lb in 2005. The 2017 figure was down 315 million lb from 2016, because of a sudden and drastic drop in exports of waste plastics to China and other Asian countries. The same was true of a 108-million-lb dip in recycled non-bottle rigids from 2016 to 2017. But in all cases for which I’ve seen figures, domestic reprocessing of waste plastics has reached all-time highs, and the proportion of plastics waste collected and exported has consequently shrunk. (Sources: The Association of Plastic Recyclers and American Chemistry Council.)
The last point responds to another element of the film’s critique—that so-called recycling in this country has largely meant shipping our garbage overseas, where some of it is reused and much of it is dumped and burned or left to pollute the environment. That was a valid point some years ago, but the trend has turned decisively in the other direction.
“Plastic Wars” espoused the conspiracy theory that in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, “recycling” was some kind of scam perpetrated by the large resin producers to tamp down public criticism aroused by environmental activists. That’s not the way I remember it. What I saw in those years was moves by resin producers to plow their money into recycling ventures or joint ventures to help get the ball rolling or “seed” the recycling industry, as well as funding research and promotional activity by the Council on Solid Waste Solutions within the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), which is now PLASTICS. I found the Council a valuable source of information back in the day; and though it no longer exists, much of its work has migrated to the American Chemistry Council.
Could the resin producers be criticized for having retreated (at least temporarily) from those early recycling ventures? Perhaps, though reprocessing waste was obviously not their core business. And what we’re seeing nowadays is a resurgence of resin companies acquiring recyclers (Borealis bought two) and forming alliances with others to supply their rapidly growing catalogs of recycle-content grades.
“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” On the “Reduce” side, lightweighting has proceeded by leaps and bounds. For example, KHS introduced the “world’s lightest” half-liter PET water bottle—at just 5 g, down from 28 g in the mid-1980s.
While knocking the resin companies on one hand for lack of sustained commitment to recycling—perhaps because it “competed” with their output of virgin materials—the filmmakers asserted the contrary criticism that the resin makers had truncated their mantra of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” to just the last term. Leaving aside for the moment the “Reuse” concept, which I take to refer to consumers’ behavior, not industry’s—the makers of “Plastic Wars” seemed wholly ignorant of the major impact of the “Reduce” theme over the past few decades.
You may know it better by the name “lightweighting.” A consistent theme in resin development over the past 30 years has been new resin grades that allow for thinner walls without sacrificing thermal, mechanical or barrier properties. But gee, doesn’t that “compete” with selling more pounds of resin? And, while we’re at it, much of the credit for today’s lightweighted parts goes to processing enhancements developed by resin companies, machine builders and moldmakers.
For example, a 2017 Mastio study on films said that consumer can liners were typically 1 to 1.25 mils thick, about half of what they were 18 years before. And another source says the current standard for HDPE “t-shirt” carryout bags is about 0.5-0.6 mils, but they were at least twice as thick back in the late ’80s.
Or take another favorite bugaboo of environmentalists—single-serve PET water bottles:
• A variety of sources note that half-liter water bottles have slimmed by 60-70% or more from 28 g in the mid-’80s to 12-15 g five to 10 years ago, and as light as 5 g in 2018.
• A half-liter carbonated soft-drink (CSD) PET bottle has been trimmed from around 25 oz in 2010 to as little as 10.5 oz in 2018.
• Meanwhile, the 1.5 L CSD bottle has gone from 32 g down to 24 g, and the 64-oz PET hot-fill bottle has shrunk from 68 g to 59 g.
• The 2 L CSD bottle is now around 45 g, down from 75+ g, but more important, it has shed the HDPE basecup, aluminum lid, and glued-on LDPE sleeve label. Now, the HDPE cap and label are easily separable from the PET for recycling.
• Caps for CSD and water bottles have also shed dramatic amounts of weight. A new style of CSD cap is in the works that will cut weight from the current 1.95-2.4 g down to 1.65 g.
(Thanks to my colleague, senior editor Lilli Sherman, for helping me gather this info.)
One more thing: The film seemed to imply that a landfill, a smoldering pile of trash on the ground, or a disgusting Sargasso Sea of floating plastics are the only alternatives to mechanical recycling—or eliminating plastics packaging altogether. What about places like The Netherlands, that don’t have room for landfills and have learned how to burn their trash for energy in a clean, environmentally conscious manner?
Nor was there any hint in this film about the exciting promise of emerging technologies for chemical recycling, which could be more efficient than mechanical recycling and able to handle today’s non-recyclable plastic compositions.
Okay, I’ve vented enough about the thinness of the reporting in this film. But that’s not all that got my teeth grinding as I watched it.
The plastics recycling industry is also a culprit.
At home, I’m very conscientious about separating every last little bit of recyclable trash and making sure it goes into the right bin. I marvel at the quality of the packaging and carryout food containers that I’m forced to throw out every day—my cupboards can hold only so many washed empties. PET clamshells and berry boxes, and microwavable PP trays and tubs with hermetically sealing lids—they belong in a housewares store, not in my trash. But at least they’re getting recycled, right? PP is such a valuable material—industries from automotive to toys to housewares must be eager to get it, no? Not according to what I saw in the “Plastic Wars” film, and unfortunately, it had the ring of truth.
“Plastic Wars” sensitized me to the very low probability that my household’s thermoformed PET trays, clamshells and berry boxes, along with injection molded PP trays and lids, all of which I separate for recycling, end up anywhere but in landfill.
I’m aware that thermoformed PET clamshells and berry boxes shouldn’t be commingled with PET bottles, owing to differences in molecular weight (I.V.). I know there are extruders of PET sheet that could use thermoformed post-consumer waste, but I doubt much, or any, of what I throw away gets to them. And I know the amount of post-consumer PP packaging that’s recycled is disappointingly small (386 million lb in 2017, according to ACC).
It’s bad enough that I can’t get New York City (where I live) to recycle my plastic bags—they’d rather ban them. But what is the excuse for not recycling PP rigid containers? To me, they look as easy to ID visually for hand sortation as soda and bleach bottles. So what’s the problem? I see some pioneering recyclers are going far out of their way to reclaim “ocean plastics” from beach scavenging in economically disadvantaged islands of the Caribbean. Bravo, but why not do more to recycle non-bottle PET and PP food containers from municipal curbside collection here in the U.S.?
I wish I knew the answers. But pacing back and forth in front of my TV last Tuesday evening, I had to conclude that there was some broad-based lack of sustained attention, lack of imagination, and paucity of innovation to do more with recycling here in North America. According to the EPA, 13% of U.S. plastics containers and packaging was recycled in 2017. European sources estimate that the figure for the EU was 42%. In 2016, some 19 European countries had plastics packaging recycling rates above 35% and two countries (Germany and the Czech Republic) reportedly achieved a recycling rate of 50%. It’s not a technology problem—whatever they’re using there is readily available for sale here.
Why is it that EU countries recycle 42% of their plastics containers and packaging waste, while the U.S. recycles just 13%?
Contrary to “Plastic Wars,” the U.S. resin producers are not primarily to blame. There’s plenty of that to go around—for the entire plastics industry and U.S. consumer society as a whole. Plastics recyclers and scrap dealers have been saying for many years that they faced a “Catch 22” of insufficient supply because of insufficient demand, and vice versa—a classic chicken-and-egg question.
“Plastic Wars” devotes much discussion to the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol molded into much of today’s plastics packaging and to the difference between theory and practice when it comes to the meaning of the term “recyclable.” A valid criticism, perhaps, but I have also taken the omnipresent recycling symbols as a spur to consumers to ask the question: “If this is recyclable, is it being recycled in my community, and if not why not?
I think that we have finally turned a corner in public opinion: There is accelerating demand for sustainability in packaging, which is unlikely to abate or just go away. I think that message has been received, and adopted, at all levels of the plastics industry. Almost every processor I talk to believes in it and actively seeks to enhance the sustainability of its operations.
Recycling and sustainability is not a “war” between the plastics industry and everybody else. We’re mostly all on the same side here. (Image: Engel)
In short, sustainability and recycling do not constitute a “war”—with plastics on one side and everyone else on the other. That may disappoint some politicians, activists and documentary filmmakers who thrive on conflict and divisiveness. But there’s a heckuva lot more to be accomplished now by collaboration and cooperation than by confrontation.
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