The Plastic Industry Is Growing During COVID. Recycling? Not So Much.

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In a scene from "Plastic Wars," correspondent Laura Sullivan, left, surveys plastic waste that can't be recycled. With plastic production growing during COVID, environmentalists fear waste is also on the rise.

In a scene from "Plastic Wars," correspondent Laura Sullivan, left, surveys plastic waste that can't be recycled. With plastic production growing during COVID, environmentalists fear waste is also on the rise.

February 17, 2021

Unlike most industries during COVID-19, plastic manufacturers are seeing production increase in the midst of a global economic downturn.

“Domestically for us, plastic has remained pretty strong. Demand has probably increased,” said Joshua Baca, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastics Division.

But that growth also means more plastic in landfills — a problem, according to environmental advocates, who say that corporate efforts to curb waste, including a stated goal of recycling all plastic packaging by 2040, are insufficient.

“Pour money into it; build it; it’ll all get recycled — that’s the myth they’re promoting,” Ivy Schlegel, a plastics researcher with the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace, told FRONTLINE.

Production of plastic resins, the building blocks of all plastic products, increased 0.9 percent in the U.S. in 2020, compared to 1.2 percent in 2019. Despite smaller growth than the previous year, plastic was the only segment of the U.S. chemistry industry, which includes everything from fertilizer to synthetic rubber, to expand last year, according to a year-end report by the American Chemistry Council. The report projects that plastics will be the fastest-growing part of the industry through 2030, factoring in economic recovery, the anticipated end of the pandemic and other variables.

Industry analysts attribute American plastic’s continued growth to increased consumer demand and to its designation as “essential” in responding to COVID-19.

Plastic’s stability is also due, in part, to public perception of it as resistant to COVID-19 transmission. Masks, gloves and other protective equipment are made from plastics; so are the delivery cartons, soda bottles and other single-use packaging that Americans used and discarded as they ordered more food and consumer goods delivered to their homes.

“We don’t have a plastics problem,” Baca of the American Chemistry Council said, citing the pandemic-era rise of plastic shopping bags, masks and syringes. “We have a plastic waste problem.”

The early days of COVID-19, when attention was focused on potential spread from surfaces, proved to be a particular boon for plastic bags. Cities and states across America rolled back or postponed bag bans amid fears that reusable grocery bags could harbor the virus. In California, which used 500 million single-use plastic bags per month before voters approved a ban in 2016, Gov. Gavin Newsome suspended the state’s plastic-bag ban from late April to late June 2020.

“[Plastic industry executives] were misusing a lot of studies to make people afraid and think they were going to contract coronavirus and die from bringing reusable bags to the store,” Greenpeace’s Schlegel said.

While some cities and states across the U.S. have passed local restrictions on plastic bags and polystyrene food containers, broad bans on single-use plastic remain hotly contested. A California bill that would have sharply restricted the use of non-recyclable plastic was defeated in September, following a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign by the plastics industry.

Baca said that enhanced recycling is the way to fix plastic waste, not bans on single-use plastics. “It’s just a short-sighted solution that doesn’t address the problem.”

Schlegel disagreed, saying that less plastic — not just more recycling — is needed to stop waste buildup: “We think the ACC is overstating the simplicity.”

In the March 2020 documentary Plastic Wars, FRONTLINE and NPR investigated the plastic industry’s response to ballooning waste. Correspondent Laura Sullivan reviewed internal documents from the late 1980s and early 1990s that showed executives were aware recycling was not likely to solve the plastic-waste problem, even as they launched a public relations campaign touting recycling’s efficacy.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, the former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, said in the film. “I think [executives] knew that the infrastructure wasn’t there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.”

To boost recycling efforts, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste — an industry group of major corporations, including Pepsi, P&G and Shell — has promised to spend $1.5 billion by 2024 to reduce plastic pollution and boost re-use efforts. And the American Chemistry Council told FRONTLINE it has committed to the re-use or recycling of all plastic packaging by 2040.

But reducing plastic waste isn’t that simple, according to Ron Liesemer, who led the industry’s recycling campaigns in the late 1980s and 1990s. Back then, the playbook was similar to today, he said: Plastic companies responded to concerns by funding and promoting the recycling of consumer plastics. But a lot of plastic waste that technically was recyclable — polystyrene foam and PVC containers, food-stained packaging — ended up in landfills, because it was either technologically impossible or too expensive to separate from general waste. Less than 10 percent of the world’s 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste has been recycled, researchers found in 2017.

“Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace,” Liesemer told FRONTLINE and NPR in Plastic Wars.

Major industry players point out that they haven’t used the pandemic to walk back recycling commitments. Rob Stier, a petrochemical industry analyst at S&P Global Platts, told FRONTLINE that companies including IKEA and Michelin are now buying stakes in their own recycling operations, in an effort to manage costs while increasing recycling capacity.

“The current scale [of plastic recycling] needs to become an order of magnitude larger,” Stier said. As for emerging methods of recycling explored in Plastic Wars, including using chemicals or heat to break down plastics, “I think a lot of those technologies are still in the demonstration mode,” Stier said.

While corporations explore ways to underwrite costs moving forward, the current American recycling system is in danger of being derailed by the pandemic, said Colin Staub, a reporter for the trade publication Resource Recycling. Municipal budgets, which pay for recycling collection programs, are likely to suffer in the upcoming fiscal year due to COVID-induced cuts. In New York, state legislators are attempting to fix the problem by proposing a bill that would require manufacturers to pay for local recycling efforts.

Municipal budget cuts also would hamper efforts to keep recyclable consumer goods out of landfills, according to Staub.

“That’s going to be a huge strain,” he said. “It is going to have long-term implications for the recycling sector.”

This story has been updated to correctly refer to polystyrene food containers.


Stream Plastic Wars in its entirety below.


Dan Glaun, Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

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