MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly with a story that is not about coronavirus. It's about recycling and plastic and how what we have believed for decades is wrong. The vast majority of plastic cannot or will not be recycled. NPR and our reporting partner, the PBS series "Frontline," have found that oil and plastic executives have known that all along, even as the industry spent millions of dollars promoting recycling and telling people the opposite. In the coming months, we will air stories from that investigation. And tonight, you can watch a documentary starting on "Frontline." NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan is here to tell us more.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hello.
KELLY: So just help me get a handle on this. The majority of plastic that we have all spent separating out, not putting in the regular trash - it never actually really got recycled?
SULLIVAN: That's right. In the 40 years of recycling, less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled. And here's the problem. I mean, anyone can take something plastic and turn it into something else, but the question has always been whether the cost of all that makes sense. I mean, you've got to send a garbage truck to your house, pay someone to sort it out, melt it down. And plastic is made out of oil and gas, and oil and gas are cheap. It's usually cheaper, easier or both to just make new plastic. And a couple - I mean, a couple of the original plastics, basically soda bottles and milk jugs, do have buyers in the U.S. But the vast majority of plastic, even when you put it into the blue bin - I mean, think strawberry containers, yogurt cups, salad boxes, squeeze packets, packaging, all of these things - they do not. They're either landfilled or burned or wind up in the oceans.
KELLY: So why have we all spent all these years believing plastic was being recycled, could be recycled?
SULLIVAN: Part of the reason was China. For a while, it was taking the country's plastic trash and sorting through it for the good bits, like soda bottles and milk jugs. They've now shut their doors. But the other reason is because this is what the public has been repeatedly told. Let me play you this commercial from 1990. It shows a plastic bottle bouncing out of a garbage truck.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: It may look empty, yet it's anything but trash. It's full of potential.
SULLIVAN: This is one of many ads that ran for years, saying plastic is valuable; plastic is recyclable. But these ads weren't paid for by environmentalists. They were paid for by the oil and gas and plastic industry. And here's where it gets even more interesting. We spent months digging through the industry's internal documents and found that even as oil and plastic companies spent millions promoting recycling, their own documents show they knew that recycling most plastic was unlikely to work. Memos and reports we found to top executives called recycling plastic costly, called sorting it infeasible. One document told officials there was serious doubt that recycling most plastic was ever going to be economically viable.
KELLY: I mean, I get why the plastic industry would promote plastic. I don't why - I don't get why it would promote plastic recycling if they knew it wouldn't be economically viable, if they knew it wasn't feasible on a large scale.
SULLIVAN: And that was the question we had. And we found three former industry insiders who've never spoken publicly before, and all of them said promoting the idea of recycling was a way to sell more plastic. One top official - his name was Larry Thomas - he ran the industry's most powerful lobbying group at the time. He said it was pretty simple. He said the public was turning against plastic, and they needed people to feel good about it.
LARRY THOMAS: If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment. But the manufacturers of resins - they were not interested in putting any real money or effort into recycling because they want to sell virgin material.
SULLIVAN: And he and other former officials said the strategy worked. Favorability ratings improved.
KELLY: And just briefly, Laura, the public continues to turn against plastic. We've seen these bans of plastic straws and bags, legislation in some states, like California. Where does that leave the industry?
SULLIVAN: Once again, the industry is spending millions promoting plastic and telling people to recycle. In interviews, they said that they are behind this now. The public should believe them, and they're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to make it work.
KELLY: Thank you, Laura.
SULLIVAN: Thank you.
KELLY: NPR's Laura Sullivan - and you can hear more from her series in the weeks ahead. Starting tonight, you can watch that documentary "Plastic Wars" on PBS stations and online.
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