Why Have We All Been Recycling Plastic For 30 Years? : Planet Money Recycling plastic has never worked very well. So who convinced us this was a good idea? In this episode, we might have the answer. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

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Back in the 1980s, here's how recycling worked. You could recycle glass, paper and metal, but recycling plastic wasn't really a thing yet.

COY SMITH: The cost of recycling plastic was really expensive, so nobody collected it.


This is Coy Smith. He ran a recycling business out in San Diego. And even though it was too expensive, by the early 1990s, Coy decided he was going to let his customers recycle two types of plastic - milk jugs and soda bottles.

GONZALEZ: But then one day, his customers, just out of nowhere, started throwing in more than just milk jugs and soda bottles. They were throwing in peanut butter jars and strawberry containers and toothpaste tubes. And, of course, Smith was like, wait; who told them they could throw all this plastic in the bin?

SULLIVAN: He starts looking at all the plastic. He's flipping it over, and then he sees something that he's never seen on the plastic before, this little symbol.

SMITH: The symbol starts showing up on the containers.

GONZALEZ: All this plastic, all of a sudden, is stamped with a little triangle of arrows. You know the one, the international recycling symbol.

SMITH: All the sudden, the consumer is looking at what's on their soda bottle, and they're looking at what's on their yogurt tub and saying, oh, well, they both have the symbol. Oh, I guess they both go in.

SULLIVAN: There were these little numbers inside the triangle - plastic No. 1, plastic No. 4, No. 7. No one really understood what they meant, but there was this recycling symbol on it, so people just threw everything in. And all over the country, recycling bins were suddenly full of plastic that recyclers couldn't sell.

SMITH: I would call my buddy Eric (ph) at Eco-Cycle in Boulder, Colo., and say, Eric, are you having this problem? And he would say yes. And I'd call Mary (ph) in Saint Paul, Minn., and say, Mary, are you having that problem in Saint Paul? And she'd say, absolutely, we are. And Brooke (ph) from Solana Recyclers (ph) was saying, are you having this problem with this stuff? And I'm like, yes, I am.

GONZALEZ: This new triangle of arrows with the little number inside - it wasn't some insider code that was slapped on plastic containers without much thought. These numbers, the arrows - it was a decision, a very intentional decision.

SULLIVAN: And this stamp made people believe something that wasn't true - that all this plastic trash could be and would be turned into something else.

GONZALEZ: Now, you may remember a PLANET MONEY episode we did last year where we told you that only a tiny portion of plastics are being recycled - basically, just the soda bottles and milk jugs. It's not that you can't physically recycle other plastics. It's just that it doesn't usually make sense economically. And heartbreakingly, it doesn't usually make sense environmentally either. This upset many of our listeners, who wrote in and said, no, PLANET MONEY, this cannot be true.

SULLIVAN: But it is. So if recycling plastic is not working now and it didn't work 30 years ago when the numbers in arrows first popped up, did it ever work? And that - that led us to the biggest question of all. If this has all been a lie, where did it come from?


GONZALEZ: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

SULLIVAN: And I'm Laura Sullivan.

GONZALEZ: Laura is one of NPR's incredible investigative reporters. And today on the show, Laura set out with the support of PBS "Frontline" to find out who is responsible for this great plastic lie.

SULLIVAN: And what I found was a paper trail - crinkled up documents that apparently did not get recycled, long forgotten in old boxes. And the trail leads - well, it leads to a guy named Larry.


GONZALEZ: So how did millions of Americans come to believe that most plastic would be recycled when that's not actually true? Laura Sullivan is going to take the story from here.

SULLIVAN: OK, it seemed like a good place to start - was the plastic industry. They make the stuff. Did they know the truth about recycling plastic?

I headed to one of the birthplaces of plastic. Plastic comes from oil, but really, a lot of it comes from the DuPont chemical company. And some of the plastic industry's old records are housed in the Hagley Library. It's this stone building on the grounds of the first du Pont family home in Delaware. This is a place that actually used to store sodium nitrate back when DuPont made gunpowder, not plastic. There's an archivist with a bow tie and a handlebar mustache named Lucas Clawson, and he looks like someone who would make good cocktails. Lucas wheeled out a cart of boxes.

Thank you.

LUCAS CLAWSON: You're welcome.

SULLIVAN: Files that documented the discovery of a chemical marvel that changed the world, a product that looked like glass but didn't break, a product that could also look like lightweight fluff but keep things hot called Styrofoam, and an incredible new film that could preserve food for days called Saran Wrap. There were a couple clues about recycling inside the boxes from the industry's most powerful lobby group at the time, the Society of the Plastics Industry. Their job was to lobby for the big oil and plastic companies. So think Exxon, Chevron, Dow, DuPont.

And there's this one memo from 1973. The environmental movement is just being born, and one of the top people in the plastics industry is talking about how the cost of sorting plastic is high. But it seemed like a lot of the documents were missing. I find a reference to a memo or a report, but then I noticed that someone had drawn a line through it.

Hey, Lucas. Hey. Can I ask you a question?

CLAWSON: Absolutely.

SULLIVAN: OK. Why in this section are all - like, do these have so many of these sort of cross-outs?

CLAWSON: Because those records are no longer at Hagley.

SULLIVAN: They're not here anymore.

CLAWSON: They are not.

SULLIVAN: Where did they go?

CLAWSON: The Society of the Plastics Industry asked for them back.

SULLIVAN: They - really?


SULLIVAN: Is that unusual?

CLAWSON: That doesn't happen often.

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Do you know why they took them? Did they say?

CLAWSON: I do not know.


Of course, there are all kinds of reasons why an industry lobbying group might want its records back. I did call the Society of the Plastics folks and asked them if I could see the records they took. They said no. So I headed to another library, this time at Syracuse University. And there, buried in its stacks, are boxes of files donated from an industry consultant. Actually, the industry consultant died, and the wife found the boxes and gave them to Syracuse.

And inside these boxes, I found what I was looking for. A report was sent to top oil and plastic executives in 1973. It says recycling plastic is nearly impossible. There is no recovery from obsolete products, it says. Recycling is costly. Sorting it is infeasible. Plus, it says plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it. So the oil and plastic industry knew. They've known for almost 50 years.

And then I found more confidential memos in meetings that echoed decades of this knowledge. Inside thousands of pages of courtroom discovery, there's a speech from an industry insider in 1974. When it comes to recycling large quantities of plastic, it says there is, quote, "serious doubt that it can ever be made viable on an economic basis."

Now, OK, sure, anyone can take something plastic, melt it down and make something else. But what these documents are saying is that it's expensive. It's time-consuming. It's chemically problematic. And it's just cheaper and easier to make plastic out of new oil instead of plastic trash.

There are all kinds of names in these documents - men who have never spoken publicly before. And there was one name I kept seeing over and over. He was giving speeches at fancy hotels, hosting conferences in Berlin and Phoenix. They called him a bigwig. He was the industry's top lobbyist, Larry Thomas. This is the man I had to find.

But do you know how many Larry Thomases there are in the United States? Thousands. I'd call, say, are you the Larry Thomas who used to work in plastics? Are you the Larry Thomas who used to be president of the Society of the Plastics Industry? And then, finally...

LARRY THOMAS: I was a frontman for the plastics industry, no getting around it.

SULLIVAN: The bigwig himself.

THOMAS: I did what the industry wanted me to do. That's for sure.


THOMAS: My personal views certainly didn't always jive with the views I had to take as part of my job. But that's the way it was.

SULLIVAN: Larry's retired now on the coast of Florida. But I told him I'd been reading all about his exploits in the world of plastic.

Where were the offices?

THOMAS: The offices were - where would you think they would be?


THOMAS: Yes...

SULLIVAN: (Laughter).

THOMAS: ...1825 K Street.

SULLIVAN: K Street was the heart of lobbying in Washington, and it was in those offices that top executives in the world's most powerful oil and plastic companies met. They had meeting after meeting about a little problem they were having. There was just too much plastic trash, and consumers didn't like it.

In one of the documents I found from 1989, Larry wrote to top oil executives at Exxon, Chevron, Amoco, Dow, DuPont, Procter & Gamble and a bunch of others. He wrote, the image of plastics is deteriorating at an alarming rate. We are approaching a point of no return.

THOMAS: The feeling was the plastics industry is almost under fire. We've got to do what it takes to take the heat off because we want to continue to make plastic products.

SULLIVAN: They wanted to keep making plastic. But the more you make, the more plastic trash you get. And the obvious solution to this is to recycle it. But they knew they couldn't. Remember, it's expensive. It degrades.

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: So they needed a different plan. Larry decides to call a bunch of meetings at fancy hotels. He summons the Society of the Plastics people, oil executives. Larry doesn't remember the specifics of each particular meeting, but one of his deputies at the time, Lew Freeman - he remembers.

LEW FREEMAN: If you could - yeah - peel back all of the layers of my brain.

SULLIVAN: Lew remembers a bunch of meetings.

FREEMAN: The basic question on the table was, you guys, as you're our trade association of the plastics industry, aren't doing enough. We need to do more.

SULLIVAN: This one DuPont executive was telling Lew, it's your job to fix plastic's imaging problem. So what do you need?

FREEMAN: He said, I think if we had $5 million, which seemed like a lot of money then.

SULLIVAN: Five million.

FREEMAN: If we had $5 million, we could solve this problem. And my boss said in response, if you had $5 million, you wouldn't know how to spend it effectively.

SULLIVAN: Well, they came up with a way to spend $5 million - that and a lot more.

FREEMAN: 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.

SULLIVAN: The industry decided to advertise its way out of a can't-recycle-it problem.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Presenting the possibilities of plastics. Plastics help save you from dents and broken bones. It helps...

SULLIVAN: They touted the benefits of a product that after it was used, for the most part, was headed to a landfill, incinerator or even ocean.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) This bottle may look empty, yet it's anything but trash. It's full of potential. And...

SULLIVAN: These commercials carried an environmentalist message, but they were paid for by the oil and plastic companies, eventually leading to a $50-million-a-year industry-wide ad campaign promoting plastic. So I asked Larry, why? Why spend tens of millions of dollars telling people to recycle plastic when they knew recycling plastic wasn't going to work? And that's when he said it, the point of the whole thing.

THOMAS: If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment.

SULLIVAN: And if they're not concerned about the environment, they'll keep buying plastic. It wasn't just Larry and Lew who said this. I spoke to half a dozen top guys involved in the industry at the time who all said a plan was unfolding. And it went beyond ads. The industry funded recycling projects in local neighborhoods, expensive sorting machines that didn't make any economic sense, school recycling contests. All of this was done with great fanfare.

Except I decided to go track down almost a dozen of the industry's biggest projects, like the one where they were going to recycle plastic in national parks or the one that was going to recycle all the plastic in school lunches in New York. They all failed and disappeared quietly.

But there was one more part of this campaign, the final piece that did stick around - that recycling symbol with the numbers in the middle. This symbol has created so much confusion about what is and is not recyclable. And the plan to stamp it on every plastic item popped up a lot in the documents. I learned of a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to require that every single plastic item have this symbol stamped on it even if there was no way to economically recycle it. I should note that some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate and sort plastic. But the industry knew the truth. These symbols were causing problems.

One report told executives in July 1993 that the symbol is being misused. It's creating, quote, "unrealistic expectations" about what plastic people can recycle. It's being used as a green marketing tool. But the executives decided to keep the symbol anyway.

I did reach out to plastic industry folks, and they said that the symbols were only meant to help sort plastic and that they were not intended to confuse people. But the symbol and the ads and the projects - all of this basically convinced people. Larry says the idea that the vast majority of plastic could be recycled was sinking in.

THOMAS: I can only say that after a while, the atmosphere seemed to change. I don't know whether it was because people thought that recycling had solved the problem or that they were just so in love with plastic products that they were willing to overlook the environmental concerns that were mounting up.

SULLIVAN: It's been 30 years now since most of those plans have been put into place, and the public's feelings about plastic have started to shift again. People are reading stories about oceans choked with plastic trash and trace amounts of this stuff inside our bodies. And once again, people are wanting to ban plastic, and the survival of the oil companies is at stake. So I take everything I've learned and bring it to the industry's leaders. And that's after the break.


SULLIVAN: If ever there was a sign of the future, it's a brand-new chemical plant rising from the flat skyline outside Sweeny, Texas. They don't recycle plastic here. They make new plastic. This one plant alone is Chevron Phillips' $6 billion bet on the future of plastic. Inside, the steel is still shiny and the concrete floors are free from stains. I walk past the railcars and the overflow ponds to a pristine new warehouse to meet Jim Becker, Chevron Phillips' vice president of sustainability. And he's feeling good.

JIM BECKER: We see a very bright future for our products. We're very optimistic on future growth.

SULLIVAN: Plastic production is expected to triple by 2050. I told Jim that's a lot of plastic trash, and Jim nods because his job is to solve the plastic trash problem. And he says they've got a plan. Jim says Chevron Phillips will recycle all the plastic they make by 2040 - all the plastic they make. And as he says this, he's not flinching at all. He's looking me right in the eye. All of the plastic they make.

BECKER: Well, I think we can. That's what we're working towards. That's what we're working toward.

SULLIVAN: Jim seems earnest. And he tells me this story about vacationing with his wife and seeing all this plastic trash and being devastated by what they saw. But it's been 30 years now since the plastic industry told the public they can recycle the vast majority of plastic when they knew that that wasn't true. And in all that time, less than 10% of all the plastic made has ever been recycled - 10%. So I asked him, how do you get it to a place where 100%? Like, you're saying that the company wants 100% of this plastic getting recycled.


SULLIVAN: How do you get there?

BECKER: I think there's a couple things that have to happen - much more education. You also have to really build up the infrastructure for collection. We're going to have to invest in innovation. Regulation has some role to play here.

SULLIVAN: Recycling education, better collection - this can't be the new plan. This is the old plan. This is the plan from the '90s, when Larry and Lew were there, and it wasn't even a real plan then. Is this the only plan that the industry has?

I went to find the new frontman, the new Larry for the plastics industry. If you want to know what Exxon Mobil and Shell and the rest of the plastics industry thinks about recycling, you've got to talk to Steve Russell. He was, until recently, the vice president for plastic for the American Chemistry Council, the oil industry's most powerful lobby and trade group right now. And he said, yes, that's the plan.

STEVE RUSSELL: I do understand the skepticism because it hasn't happened in the past, but I think the pressure, the public commitments and, most importantly, the availability of technology is going to give us a different outcome.

SULLIVAN: But here's the problem. Plastic is now harder to sort than ever. Making new plastic out of oil is still cheaper than making it out of recycled plastic trash. And there's also vastly more plastic trash than there ever has been.

What if the industry cannot deliver on this promise?

RUSSELL: This is a moment that we actually have to get serious and make it happen. I don't think failure is an option here.

SULLIVAN: You don't think this is just an industry coming up with a way to get out of a crisis?

RUSSELL: No. No, this is about all of us understanding that we each have a role to play. We cannot continue with business as usual.

SULLIVAN: But in all those decades when people did believe something that wasn't true, your members made billions of dollars in profit.

RUSSELL: And in - during that time, our members invested in developing the technologies that have brought us where we are today. We're going to be able to make all of our new plastic out of existing municipal solid waste in plastic.

SULLIVAN: Steve says this isn't a new public relations plan. He says this time, they will make recycling work. And they're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to do it. And they'll convince the public to get on board, which, of course, starts with a new ad.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is the world we see.

SULLIVAN: A plastic bag floats in the ocean. Plastic bottles and trash are piled high on beaches.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: ...Because the world we see...

SULLIVAN: And as the music soars, the smiling young people are picking it all up. We see scientists and recycling plants and blue sorting tubs.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And we have the tools. We have the people that can change the world.

SULLIVAN: I wanted to know what the architects of the last plan - the one from the 1990s - thought of this. So I watched it with Lew Freeman.

What do you think?

FREEMAN: Deja vu all over again...


FREEMAN: ...As sometimes said. This is the same kind of thinking that ran in the '90s. I don't think this kind of advertising is helpful to them at all.

SULLIVAN: And Larry Thomas, the bigwig who once represented plastic to the public, he said the same.

THOMAS: I don't think anything has changed. That sounds exactly the same.

SULLIVAN: These days, Larry spends a lot of time biking past the ocean. He's become deeply worried about its future, what it will look like in another 20 or 50 years, long after he's gone. And he thinks back to those years he spent at fancy hotels and conference rooms with oil and plastic executives. And he says what occurs to him now is something he says maybe should've been obvious all along. He says what he saw was an industry that didn't want recycling to work. Because if the job is to sell as much oil as you possibly can, as much virgin oil as you possibly can, any amount of recycled plastic is competition.

THOMAS: They were not interested and still aren't interested, as far as I'm concerned, in putting any real money or effort in the recycling because they want to sell virgin material. Nobody is producing a virgin product and wants something to come along that is going to replace it. Produce more virgin material - that's their business. Every year, they want to say they produced X number of million more pounds because that meant their business was growing.

SULLIVAN: And it is growing. We're making more plastic, buying more plastic, using more plastic. That's not going to go away anytime soon. But as the industry dusts off their new ads and makes their new promises, there is one difference. The difference this time is whether or not the public will still believe them.


GONZALEZ: You can find us on TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook. We are everywhere at @planetmoney.

SULLIVAN: Today's show was produced by Darian Woods and James Sneed. It was edited by Robert Smith and Sarah Gonzalez.

GONZALEZ: Bryant Urstadt edits the show, and Alex Goldmark is our supervising producer.

SULLIVAN: We also want to thank our partners Rick Young and Emma Schwartz and everyone else at PBS "Frontline" who helped investigate this story.

GONZALEZ: I'm Sarah Gonzalez.

SULLIVAN: I'm Laura Sullivan. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.


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