“Recycling is not a solution” and the plastics industry has known this for decades

Plastic is everywhere now. In the soil, in the water of seas and oceans, and even in our bodies: according to some recent estimates, we eat and breathe microplastics that are equivalent in weight and …

“Recycling is not a solution” and the plastics industry has known this for decades

Plastic is everywhere now. In the soil, in the water of seas and oceans, and even in our bodies: according to some recent estimates, we eat and breathe microplastics that are equivalent in weight and size to a credit card every week. The alternative is clear, for those interested in the environment and sustainability: ban single-use plastics, and focus on reusable or biodegradable containers, objects and packaging. This is because even with the best intentions, recycling plastic is a complex, expensive, inefficient, and absolutely non-circular process: in no case, in fact, can plastic products be recycled more than a handful of times, before degrading to the point to be unusable.

To date, the plastic that is actually recycled in Europe is just 30% of that which is thrown away. Yet for decades we have been buying products of all kinds that are sold to us as recyclable. We are committed to throwing plastic containers and objects into the appropriate bins. And we are bombarded with advertisements and awareness campaigns on the importance of recycling plastic. How come? According to a report by the environmental organization Center for Climate Integrity, the explanation is simple: for about 40 years, the big names in the petrochemical industry have knowingly used the theme of recycling to green wash disposable plastic products.

The problems of recycling

It is clear that recycling is always better than producing something from scratch. But to consider it a sustainable strategy in the long term, it must have some characteristics: be economically convenient, non-polluting, and repeatable more or less infinitely. If, on the other hand, no one uses recycled raw materials, because they are not very cost-effective, the effort is useless. Ditto if the recycling process pollutes more than the production process from scratch. Or if it can be repeated a small number of times: in this case it is better than nothing, but the result is still to produce waste to be disposed of in landfill after a certain number of recycling cycles. In the case of plastic, recycling is not a particularly polluting process (although it still requires energy and/or the use of potentially harmful chemical agents), but it has problems in terms of costs and repeatability.

For starters, there are dozens of different plastics in the products we throw away every day. Not all of them are recyclable, each must be processed separately and with very different results. Practically only two materials, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE), have a real market in the field of recycled plastic, because they are transformed into materials with properties comparable to those of the original. But even in this case, the recycling process (which usually involves the melting of waste and the production of pellets with which to build new objects) degrades the plastic, preventing it from being reproduced indefinitely. In short, recycling plastic can hardly create a circular market, like that of glass or paper: what it can do, at most, is prolong the life cycle of these products, before the inevitable end, in landfill or incinerators.


Looking at the European market, for example, according to Zero Waste Europe estimates in 2022 the recycling rate of PET bottles (the sector in which plastic recycling is most mature and effective) is equal to 50%, but of this plastic recycled, only 31% ends up being reused in the production of bottles, while the remainder ends up in other supply chains (trays, packaging, etc.) which have a much lower recycling rate, and is therefore almost certainly destined to end up in landfill. Overall, the chances that a plastic bottle will end up being recycled into a new bottle are around 30%. And we are talking, as we were saying, about the most developed sector.

This obviously does not mean that recycling bottles is wrong, or that European plastic collection processes and supply chains cannot be improved (as is actually being done) to optimize the recycling rate. But at the same time, the data shows that recycled plastic is still far from representing a realistic alternative to the production of virgin plastic, at least in the current model of production and consumption of disposable plastic. And it is important to remember, in this regard, that without changes in 2050, plastic production, which has continued to grow steadily over the last 50 years and now exceeds 400 million tonnes per year, could produce between 15 and 30% of emissions compatible with maintaining global warming within half a degree above pre-industrial levels.

The report

In short, the plastic market is more vital than ever, despite having been under scrutiny for decades due to the environmental impacts of plastic waste and the CO2 emissions caused by their production. The accusation contained in the Center for Climate Integrity report is that large petrochemical companies, such as Exxon Mobil (the world’s largest polymer producer) exploited and promoted the idea that recycling plastic could represent a solution to the problem, despite being aware that in reality things were very different. The report traces the history of commercial plastics using confidential company documents and other privileged sources unearthed in recent years. Starting from 1950, when the idea of ​​producing disposable plastic objects was born to expand the market, to the 70s and 80s when plastic waste in landfills began to represent a problem, and the the idea of ​​recycling. An idea that was promoted by American pre-trolchemical companies, united in what is now called the Plastic Industry Association, as a solution to the problem of the accumulation of solid waste, but which did not convince the members of the association themselves.

In 1986, for example, an internal report by the Vynil Institute (an organization bringing together vinyl producers) asserted that “Recycling cannot be considered a permanent solution to the problem of solid waste, because it only prolongs the time that passes before an object needs to be disposed of.” In the same vein, a speech by the director of the institute during a conference, cited in the report of Center for Climate Integrity: “Recycling cannot be done indefinitely – he would have asserted – and it does not solve the problem of solid waste”.

As late as 1994, a representative of the American company Eastma Chemical, speaking at a conference regarding the need for better infrastructures for the recycling of plastic, asserted: “Maybe one day all this could become reality, but it is more likely that we will wake up and understand that recycling will not take us out of the solid waste problem.” Through these, and many other, testimonies, the report follows what its authors define as an authentic scam up to the present day, concluding that for over 30 years, companies producing plastic materials have exploited the idea of ​​plastic recycling to distance the growing criticism of civil society, proposing a false solution that they – first and foremost – knew was not definitive.

Called into question by an article in the British newspaper The Guardian, the Plastic Industry Association has returned the accusations to the sender, asserting that they are misleading messages launched by activists using false and dated information. Whether it was a smoke screen or not – however – it is undeniable that in more than 40 years the progress made in the field of plastic recycling has certainly not been what was hoped for, and that the market for recycled plastic – although growing – it has not affected the production of new virgin plastic, nor in any way curbed the waste problem. And therefore – probably – it is time to focus more forcefully on reducing the consumption of disposable plastic, as the European Union has been doing in recent years.