Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Friday October 9, 2020
Industry has known for decades that most plastic just can’t be recycled, says investigative journalist
There has been a decades-long push to get the public to recycle plastic, even though the people behind the idea knew most plastic is too costly and difficult to recycle, says one investigative journalist.
“They have known since the 1970s how difficult and almost impossible it is to recycle the vast majority of plastic,” said Laura Sullivan, a three-time Peabody Award-winning investigative correspondent for NPR News.
Sullivan conducted an in-depth investigation into the recycling industry, and said the problem starts with trying to separate the recyclable material from the non-recyclable, which adds to the overall high cost of the process.
“Then, most importantly, the plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it,” she told The Current’s Matt Galloway, adding that this means some recycled items cannot be recycled again.
“In one speech, a former industry insider said that it was unlikely that the vast majority of plastic would ever be economically viable to recycle.”
Earlier this week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that the province will work to become a major plastics recycling hub for western North America, as part of his government’s new natural gas strategy. The federal government has also announced its intention to ban six types of single-use plastic by the end of 2021, but insisted the move would support, not hinder, Alberta’s plans.
Announcing plans to reach zero plastic waste by 2030, the federal government’s website noted that “every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 9% of which is recycled, meaning the vast majority of plastics end up in landfills.”
Sullivan’s investigation looked at plastic industry records over the last 40 years. She spoke to industry insiders involved in promoting plastic recycling to the general public.
She said that “in the 1990s, plastic was under fire, that people didn’t like plastic, there was just too much trash and they needed to do something about it.”
“The obvious answer was to recycle it all, but as we know, they knew they couldn’t do that,” she said.
“It began this campaign to sort of subtly suggest and imply and even outright say, ‘You can recycle plastic,’ when they knew that wasn’t true.”
At the time, Sullivan said the industry was hopeful that technology would improve and recycling costs would become more manageable, but that didn’t happen.
She said her investigation looked at 12 of the most highly touted projects to increase the amount of plastic being recycled, and found that all of them “fell apart” within five to seven years.
“They were started with great fanfare, they got a ton of publicity … and then they died quietly.” (CBC)