The Recycling Lie – How Corporations Duped Us Into Drowning in Plastic

The concept of recycling is central to the greenwashing campaign

For too long, a duplicitous fantasy about the purported virtues of recycling has been sold to the public. We’ve been conditioned to think recycling is the panacea for the plastic waste crisis engulfing our planet. But the hard facts tell a different, far more nefarious story — one of corporate deception on a massive scale, putting profits before environmental preservation.

The statistics lay bare recycling’s inability to stem the tide of plastics clogging our ecosystems. Of the staggering 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic the world has produced since its debut in the 1950s, a minuscule 9% has been recycled. The remaining 91% ends up charring the landscape of landfills, fouling our forests and polluting our priceless oceans — a vile legacy we are bequeathing to future generations.

And who, you might ask, is primarily responsible for this ecologically criminal status quo? The very companies that fear-mongered decades ago about a mythical recycling solution even as they carpet-bombed the world with cheap, disposable plastic packaging destined to become noxious, virtually immortal refuse.

This sordid tale of corporate deception dates back to the 1970s. As public outcry grew over the scourge of visible plastic pollution, shadowy alliances of petrochemical profiteers like Big Oil and plastics manufacturers joined forces with consumer product giants like Coca-Cola. Rather than explore sustainable alternatives, they initiated an insidious public relations blitz to divert responsibility.

The concept of recycling was central to this greenwashing campaign. Coca-Cola began funding some of the earliest municipal recycling facilities in New York City. The plastics lobby created front groups with benign-sounding names like the “Council for Solid Waste Solutions” to proselytise the fake gospel of recycling as a societal panacea. They promised Americans that we could recycle 25% of our plastic bottle waste by 1995 just by following their lead.

Meanwhile, these same corporations were executing a silent coup as cash-strapped cities and towns rushed to spend millions on exorbitant blue bin programs and processing equipment. They rapidly phased out older, reusable and refillable packaging formats with sturdy glass bottles that had achieved a robust, sustainable 96% return rate nationwide. By the late 1970s, refillable container return rates were bled down to an anaemic 5% as disposable plastic became ubiquitous.

Laws and public policies aimed at mitigating the plastics crisis were systematically stymied through lobbying might. When New York State proposed a pioneering tax on disposable bottles in 1971, industry pressure killed the plan. When Congress debated a legislative ban on all non-returnable containers in 1973, the plastics lobby began to bury it. Even unilateral bans enacted by states, like Hawaii’s 1977 restriction on plastic bottles, were swiftly torpedoed after industry backlash.

Fast forward a half-century, and the plastic peddlers and their multi-national corporate enablers show zero signs of relenting in their recycling confidence game. Last year, ExxonMobil fought to defeat a proposed plastic pollution fee in Maine. The oil colossus remains a top funder of lobbying juggernauts like the American Chemistry Council and the deceptively branded Alliance to End Plastic Waste — groups fervently protecting the status quo at all costs.

The hard truth is that even under utterly optimal conditions, recycling has severe limitations in resolving the plastic crisis. Due to thermal realities, most of what we put in those blue bins isn’t recycled. And the recycling process itself is highly energy-intensive, burning fossil fuels and emitting greenhouse gases while yielding plastic of degraded quality.

Serious historians will look back on pro-recycling propaganda as one of the most egregious cases of mass greenwashing the world has ever witnessed. Armed with bottomless profits and mercenary lobbyists, plastic pushers hid behind a shibboleth of Environmental Responsibility to protect their cash cows. They diverted the public’s attention from their pollution nightmare while making taxpayers shoulder the crushing costs.

Society truly needs a revolutionary new approach to sustainable packaging — one centred on reducing overall plastics production, aggressively transitioning to reusable material formats, mandating corporate responsibility for the full lifecycle impacts of disposables, and universally banning unnecessary single-use packaging.

The plastics crisis was a corporate-made catastrophe borne of unchecked greed and willful deception. They can never recycle their way out of this gargantuan mess of their own making. Our planet’s ecological survival hinges on dismantling the recycling myth and apportioning accountability to the calloUs captains of these industries who betrayed the Earth in pursuit of profit.


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Christopher Nial
Christopher Nial
Christopher Nial is closely monitoring climate change impact on global public health. He serves as a Senior Partner at FINN Partners, is part of the Global Public Health Group, and co-leads public health initiatives across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
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