The plastic recycling model was never economically viable, but oil and gas companies still touted it as a magic solution to waste, selling the American public a lie so the companies could keep pushing new plastic.
"The bottle may look empty, yet it's anything but trash," claims a 1990 ad showing a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck, Houston Public Media reported. It's full of potential.… We've pioneered the country's largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles."
While the ad and countless others like it extolling the value of recycling sound environmentalist in nature, they were paid for by the plastics industry and their lobbying and trade organizations, the news report added.
Americans believed these ads and have been recycling plastic for decades, trusting the discards would be kept out of burgeoning landfills and oceans and reborn as new goods. The reality, however, is that most plastic can't and won't be recycled, reported NPR. According to the EPA, in the last 40 years, less than 10% of plastic has been recycled.
Up until 2018, most recyclable plastic was shipped to China to deal with, reported Forbes. When the latter banned imports of 24 kinds of waste, including plastic from the U.S., more plastic ended up in U.S. landfills, the news report said. In 2017, 35,370 tons of plastic were produced and 26,820 tons of that was landfilled, the EPA estimated, reported Forbes.
A series of investigative reports done by NPR and the PBS series Frontline this year found that the oil and gas industries — the makers of plastic — knew all along that plastic recycling would never be realistically feasible on a large scale, yet they spent tens of millions of advertising dollars each year telling the public that plastic can and should be recycled.
Internal documents from the 1970s and former executives confirmed that the industry knew all along that recycling at a large scale would never be economically viable because the process costs more than making new plastic, NPR reported.
Larry Thomas, who led the industry's lobbying group for more than a decade, broke his silence about what happened decades ago. The plastic industry never wanted recycling to work, because recycling was in direct competition with their business of selling as much oil as they possibly could, Houston Public Media reported.
"You know, they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they wanted to sell virgin material," Thomas told the news report.
Nevertheless, starting in the late 1980s, the industry misled consumers into believing that recycling could be a magic panacea. Spending $50 million a year, big oil and plastic ran ads, installed collection centers and funded recycling projects and public regulation campaigns to convince the public that recycling works, NPR reported.
"Selling recycling sold plastic, even if it wasn't true," another former plastic executive told NPR.
Most of these projects never came to fruition before funding was cut, or have long since ended, reported Houston Public Media.
The industry also lobbied 40 states to put recycling symbols with numbers on all plastic, even if they weren't recyclable, to bolster the public image that plastic can be a renewable resource, the news report found.
"It's pure manipulation of the consumer," Coy Smith, a frustrated recycler out of San Diego, told Houston Public Media. He witnessed firsthand how the symbols caused consumers to think any plastic with the symbol was recyclable.
Again, lobbying groups and the plastics industry knew all this. A 1993 industry report said that the codes created "unrealistic expectations" about how much plastic can actually be recycled and were being misused by companies as a "green marketing tool," Houston Public Media reported.
When plastic bans started to pop up in the '80s and '90s, the industry similarly promoted recycling as an alternative to the bans, NPR reported. The industry again decided to "advertise [its] way out" of cultural and policy shifts that could potentially lead to falling sales of new plastic, NPR reported.
"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 told NPR. "If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment."
The strategy worked, and the companies promoted recycling while selling billions of dollars worth of new plastic. Meanwhile, old plastic continued to get trashed.
In response to the investigation, industry representative Steve Russell said the industry has never intentionally misled the public about recycling and is committed to ensuring all plastic is recycled, Forbes reported. Still, according to the news report, the oil industry makes $400 billion a year producing plastic and is discussing how to increase investment in plastic production given that demand for oil for cars is down.
As the truth about recycling comes out, states and environmentalists struggle to see if the broken system can be fixed at all. While they do that, plastic production is predicted to triple by 2050, NPR reported, and, "once again, the industry is spending money on ads and public relations to promote plastics and recycling."
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By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
By John R. Platt
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