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I have this question all the time - can I recycle this container or this bottle? So like everyone else, I flip over the container or the bottle, and I look for the little triangle of arrows with the numbers inside. And I think, OK, all good. Is it, though? NPR's Laura Sullivan, PBS "FRONTLINE" and Planet Money looked into those symbols and found out they are not actually about recycling.
LAURA SULLIVAN, BYLINE: The thing about opening boxes of old records is you never know what you're going to find. I started with the plastic industry's archives at Syracuse University and the Hagley Library in Delaware, and out came cellophane and plastic wrap and Styrofoam - the first products of a chemical marvel that changed the world - a product that looked like glass but didn't break. But there was another story in the boxes. Starting as early as the 1970s, the industry had a problem - all this new plastic was creating too much trash, and people didn't like it.
LARRY THOMAS: The feeling was the plastics industry was always under fire. We've go to do what it takes to take the heat off because we want to continue to make plastic products.
SULLIVAN: That's Larry Thomas. I found his name inside some of the files and tracked him down in retirement off the coast of Florida. Thomas was the top lobbyist for the industry for more than a decade. He was president of the Society of the Plastics Industry. And in one of the files, he writes this letter to top officials at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter and Gamble and others in December 1989. The image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate, he writes. We are approaching a point of no return.
The obvious answer to the problem of plastic trash was to recycle all of it. But the documents are full of reports telling top executives it won't work. One report from April 1973 calls recycling plastic costly, sorting it infeasible - before adding, plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it. Thomas says he and the other executives knew that, too.
THOMAS: There was a lot of discussion about how difficult it was to recycle. They knew that the infrastructure wasn't there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.
SULLIVAN: Sure, you can physically do it. But these industry documents are saying it's time-consuming, it's expensive, chemically problematic. And because plastic is made out of oil, and oil is cheap, recycling basically doesn't make any economic sense. So recycling all the plastic wasn't going to work. They needed another solution. There were meetings. And Thomas had this colleague, Lew Freeman, who was a vice president at the Society of the Plastics Industry. And he went to them.
LEW FREEMAN: The basic question on the table was, you guys, as our trade association in the plastics industry, aren't doing enough, we need to do more. I remember this. This is one of these exchanges that sticks with me 35 years later - or however long it's been. And it was - you know, what we need to do is advertise our way out of it. That was the idea thrown out.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Presenting the possibilities of plastics. Plastics help...
SULLIVAN: And so began the industry's $50 million-a-year ad campaign in the 1990s promoting the benefits of plastic. These were iconic commercials paired with feelgood recycling contests, nonprofits and sorting machines that didn't make any economic sense. And quietly, at the same time, the industry turned to the containers. Documents show officials lobbied almost 40 states to put the international recycling symbol on the bottom of all plastic, even if there was no way to economically recycle it.
Industry officials told NPR the symbols were only meant to help sort plastic. But the symbols and the ads and the PR campaigns all touted the same recycling message. Thomas says it all made the public feel good about plastic.
THOMAS: If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment.
SULLIVAN: A half-dozen other former top officials told me the same thing. And some of them did have hope that maybe plastic recycling would work itself out. But 30 years later, less than 10% of all plastic has ever been recycled.
The industry is now facing a crisis much like the 1990s, and top officials are once again promising to make recycling work. The industry is spending hundreds of millions on new programs. And once again, they're also spending money on new ads telling people to recycle. The question this time, though, is whether the public will still believe them. Laura Sullivan, NPR News.
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