Why Less Than 10% of the Plastics We Put in the Bin Actually Get Recycled

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I learned part of this sad truth a few years ago when I read up on why getting paper instead of plastic bags at the grocery store makes little to no difference in the world – the thing is, for plastics to actually get recycled, the oil and gas companies have to care whether or not they get reused.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone that, since there’s not much money in it, they really don’t.


Even though the American public has been pushed the recycle, especially plastics, the industry itself has always had “serious doubt” that the practice would be economically viable. The plastics industry began buying ads and promoting recycling in the 1980s, but internal records dating as far back as the 1970s reveal that officials were already dead-set against finding a way to make it actually work for everyone involved.

A report that circulated in April of 1973 called recycling plastics “costly” and “difficult,” and claimed sorting it was “infeasible,” and that there could see “no recovery from obsolete products.”

Why did they continue to support the charade of recycling, you ask? Because they thought it the appearance of cooperation would keep plastic bans away. There has been growing opposition to the use of plastics since the 1980s, and the industry saw their “support” of recycling as a way to make it seem as though they were policing their own problems.


Lew Freeman, former vice president for a plastics lobbying group, confessed…

“There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way.”

Another official from that group, Larry Thomas, backed him up.

“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.

If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

Apparently, oil and gas companies think we’re all dumb and will bite the same bait over and over again, because even though they’re admitting that recycling hasn’t worked in the past, they’re also claiming that they’re funding new technology that shows promise – that their goal is to recycle 100% of the plastics they make.

Chevron Phillips Chemical Company’s VP of sustainability said,

“Recycling has to get more efficient, more economic. Five, ten 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 I mean…fool me once, and all of that. Because the bottom line remains that, the more plastics that are actually recycled, the less money the industry makes overall.

At a time when oil and gas is already projected to lose profits due to fuel efficiency and the increased use of electric cars, the chances of them being proactive about another way to bleed cash seems dubious, at best.

Independent sources estimate that plastic production overall is expected to triple by 2050.

There continues to be a movement by regular people to reduce their use of plastics at home and out in public, and it’s growing – that said, we’re all beating our heads against a wall made of an industry set to lose billons of dollars if we succeed.

If you want a deeper dive into this topic, including how the plastics industry is fighting back by producing new and complex kinds of product that are impossible to recycle, check out the PBS documentary Plastic Wars.