Transcript

Plastic Wars

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LAURA SULLIVAN, Correspondent:

In 2015, a marine biologist came across a sea turtle in distress.

MALE SPEAKER:

I don’t want to pull it too hard.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

Yeah, I mean, it’s bleeding already. Oh, poor baby, I’m sorry. [Expletive] Christ, that is plastic. Oh, man!

MALE SPEAKER:

That’s plastic.

MALE SPEAKER 2:

Oh, my God.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

Don’t tell me that’s a freaking straw. That's just freaking—

FEMALE SPEAKER 2:

Oh, man.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Her video of the encounter quickly went viral.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

This poor sea turtle, a straw stuck in its nose—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It would attract more than 35 million views—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

—become a rallying cry for action.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—and focus public attention on a growing problem.

FEMALE NEWS GUEST:

That turtle video certainly did have an impact.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Plastic pollution, a planetary crisis.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Plastics in the ocean have been building up for decades.

MALE NEWSREADER:

In an underwater paradise, a plastic nightmare.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Recurring images of dead whales—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Eighty plastic bags found inside the whale.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—bloated seabirds and littered waterways have fueled a global anti-plastic movement.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Enemy No. 1, the plastic straw.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Many U.S. cities are taking steps to ban plastic grocery bags.

CROWD:

[Chanting] Save our Earth before it's too late!

LAURA SULLIVAN:

And yet despite the backlash, the industry that makes plastic is expanding.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The start of construction on that multibillion-dollar plastics plant—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Plentiful supplies of natural gas are driving down the cost of making plastic.

The U.S. is now one of the world’s largest plastic producers—

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

It’s going to be the largest plant of its kind in the world.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—and industry is investing tens of billions of dollars in new plastic plants.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Construction will eventually employ 6,000 people.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

By 2050, it’s estimated that global production of plastic will triple.

MALE NEWSREADER:

A plastic boom—

MALE NEWSREADER:

There's going to be more plastic than ever—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I wanted to understand how we came to this moment; how the plastic industry has been able to thrive all these years in the face of a growing crisis and opposition that’s now stronger than it’s ever been.

For decades, the national response to the growing plastic waste problem has focused on one solution: recycling.

And few places have pursed recycling more aggressively than Oregon.

What we put in our recycling bins ends up in sorting plants like this one, outside of Portland.

VINOD SINGH:

We’re actually very full right now.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is all coming in fresh.

VINOD SINGH:

This is all fresh.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is the first unload, right?

VINOD SINGH:

That’s what it looks like when it comes in.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Vinod Singh is the outreach manager at Far West Recycling.

Every single piece of this has to be sorted in some way.

VINOD SINGH:

Yeah. We have to separate paper, and then the metals and then the plastics.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

There are a lot of different kinds of plastics that have to be sorted.

VINOD SINGH:

Now what we’re doing here is we’re sorting it out into the milk jugs, the natural HDPE, the pigmented HDPE, PET water bottles.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

They’re looking for plastics.

VINOD SINGH:

Yeah. So all the plastic will come off before the line ends.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Some items, like soda bottles and milk jugs, are easier to recycle, so there’s money to be made.

VINOD SINGH:

So this is all plastic that has a home.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But most other types of plastic are technically difficult and often costly to recycle, and that makes them nearly impossible to sell, so they keep piling up.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is plastic that has no home.

VINOD SINGH:

This is plastic that has no home, so it's your clamshells, Ziploc bags, film, a CD, a food wrapper.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

In the business, they’re called "mixed plastics."

VINOD SINGH:

Now you’re getting more mixed plastics, like pouches and—everything comes in a clamshell now. As packaging evolves—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So, if somebody throws their Tide bottle into their bin, that’s a win, but what you’re saying is you’re seeing more and more of this stuff.

VINOD SINGH:

Packaging is evolving.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Most mixed plastics end up in a place like this.

LAURA LEEBRICK, Manager, Government Affairs, Rogue Disposal:

What you’re seeing happening right now is—that’s a full-size—that's probably a 53-foot trailer.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

In Medford, Oregon, Rogue Disposal’s landfill takes about a hundred loads of trash a day, and more and more of it is plastic.

LAURA LEEBRICK:

Plastic films, plastic bags, the plastic wrapping that comes around a lot of packaged goods, that all goes into the garbage. It's margarine tubs, clamshells, deli containers. Until there is a viable option for recycling those things, we should be putting it in a landfill.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But that’s not what we’ve been told for decades, as the things we buy have been increasingly packaged in plastic.

Are you David? I’m Laura Sullivan.

DAVID ALLAWAY, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality:

Very nice to meet you.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Nice to meet you, too.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

Very nice to meet you. Welcome to Portland.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

David Allaway is a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

So much of all this stuff in the grocery store is plastic now.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

It's really inexpensive.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It's an easy way to package it.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

It is, and it performs very well. It has really good engineering qualities; it protects food very well.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is my basic question, because it seems like everybody is buying lettuce in a box now. Is this recyclable?

DAVID ALLAWAY:

In this state, none of this is recyclable.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What about all of these? This is everywhere in every supermarket.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

In Oregon, again, there are no curbside programs that would accept any of these tubs.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So this is classic. A lot of Americans do this, like what you're doing right now. We flip it over. What are we looking at?

DAVID ALLAWAY:

At the bottom of all these plastic containers is this little chasing arrow—the little recycling symbol with a number. And the number—there's some words; it says, "1 PETE." This package here is technically recyclable. You could recycle this in a lab.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

DAVID ALLAWAY:

But it's not economical to recycle it given the current economics of recycling.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But if it's not happening in Oregon, it makes me wonder what's going on in the rest of the country.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

I would say that this package is rarely recycled in most parts in the country.

Can I give you another example here?

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Yes, please.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

So let's take a look at these blueberries.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

OK.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

This is classic. And if you turn this over, you see the chasing arrows. On the bottom, it says "100% recyclable." There is no program in Oregon that wants this in the curbside mix. But more than half of all people that live in the Portland area believe this belongs in the curbside container.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Well, it says it's recyclable.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

It says it's recyclable. It has the recycling logo. It’s very confusing to a lot of people.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This confusion about what can and can’t be recycled, and where plastic ultimately ends up, is no accident.

Over the past year, we’ve been investigating the plastic crisis and found that many of the problems we face today were set in motion decades ago, by the very companies who make plastic in the first place.

One of those companies is DuPont, and on the grounds of the first du Pont family home, I found the Hagley Library. It holds one of the world’s largest collections of industrial history.

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

This is an American city, a real community of homes and homemakers like thousands of others across the nation. We call it Plasticstown USA.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I’d come to see what its archive could tell me about the evolution of the plastic problem.

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

The table is set with polyethylene products, too.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

America’s postwar boom presented endless opportunities for this new, durable, lightweight material.

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

Modern-day miracles that were made with the help of petrochemicals.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

From packaging to clothing to home furnishings—

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

Very durable.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—plastic's wide-ranging applications—

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

Glassine, polyethylene, Mylar, Saran.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—promised a new world through chemistry.

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

Step into the world of man-made materials that take up where nature left off.

STEVE RUSSELL, VP, American Chemistry Council, 1995-2020:

The thing that made them unique was the ability to do more with just a little bit of material; to make things that we used lighter and more efficient. So plastic came to be used in many applications because it performed better.

DuPONT ARCHIVAL VIDEO:

That was not a trick.

STEVE RUSSELL:

It did a good job of doing what it was asked to do; it made life more efficient and easier.

ARCHIVAL NEWS VIDEO:

[Chanting] Save our Earth! Save our Earth.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But by 1970, the plastic industry would have to confront the turbulent times of America’s environmental awakening.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

One in every 10 Americans took part in rallies, concerts and—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Earth Day was one of the largest mass protests in U.S. history.

ANNIE LEONARD, Executive director, Greenpeace USA:

Earth Day was profound in terms of people waking up to the fact that we live on a finite planet, and there was a lot of concern about the trend that was happening towards a more throwaway, disposable lifestyle.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

In response, many companies, including plastic makers, and even some environmentalists got behind an iconic ad campaign that focused attention on the public’s role.

ANNIE LEONARD:

I remember being a kid and watching those ads. The most famous one, with the crying Indian—

ARCHIVAL PUBLIC SERVICE AD:

Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.

ANNIE LEONARD:

—he was actually Italian, dressed up like an Indian [Laughs]—but the fake crying Indian, the most famous one, ends with this very dramatic sentence where they say—

ARCHIVAL PUBLIC SERVICE AD:

People start pollution. People can stop it.

ANNIE LEONARD:

People all around the country bought that line and thought it was our responsibility to take care of litter.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Americans discard more trash than any other country in the world.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

While the efforts to change consumer behavior helped clean up the more visible litter problem, they did little to address the root cause.

MALE NEWSREADER:

What makes our lives convenient is burying us.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The unchecked growth in household waste.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

A barge filled with garbage is causing quite an international stink.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Loaded with more than 3,000 tons of waste from New York’s Long Island—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

By 1987, a wandering barge called the Mobro became an emblem of the growing crisis.

ANNIE LEONARD:

Greenpeace went and climbed aboard it and took a huge banner that we put on it. We said, "Next time... try recycling." It really became a metaphor of, "We are bumping up against limits here. We cannot keep just continuing this mindless consumerism, mindless consumption and dump it somewhere else."

MALE NEWSREADER:

America has a garbage problem too long ignored—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

At Hagley, we found a collection of internal plastic industry documents about this period of time when the industry was in the crosshairs of the environmental movement and plastics were under attack.

As we continued reporting, we found even more internal documents and court filings and spoke with over a dozen industry insiders, including three top executives who represented the big plastic producers and agreed to talk publicly for the first time.

Back then, one of the vice presidents at the Society of the Plastics Industry was Lew Freeman. He now heads a local environmental coalition, but he remembers a pivotal board meeting in the late '80s, when the industry was worried about its public image.

LEWIS FREEMAN, VP, Society of the Plastics Industry, 1978-2001:

A vice president of the DuPont company pulled me aside and said, "You guys better get up to Wilmington. There's dissatisfaction about what's going on with the solid waste issue." We took a trek up to Wilmington and this one DuPont executive, he said, "I think if we had $5 million"—which seemed like a lot of money then—"if we had $5 million, we could solve this problem."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

They created the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, drawn from their ranks of big oil and petrochemical companies that made plastic, like Amoco, Chevron, Dow and Exxon.

The group had a plan and turned to a veteran of the industry, Ron Liesemer, to execute it.

RONALD LIESEMER, Council for Solid Waste Solutions, 1988-2001:

They wanted to know, was I interested in being the guy who actually made recycling happen across the U.S.?

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I mean, you got handed this task to recycle plastic in the United States.

RONALD LIESEMER:

In the United States. Literally me. I had no staff. But I had millions of dollars to do what I felt was necessary.

MALE NEWSREADER:

In a highly controversial action, one county in New York state has voted to ban all packaging made of two kinds of plastic.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It was a critical moment. A growing backlash was threatening the future of plastic.

MALE NEWSREADER:

In what may be part of a national trend, the City Council of St. Paul, Minnesota, voted to outlaw the use of polystyrene plastics.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Liesemer was sent to Minnesota on an urgent mission. Brand-name companies that used plastic were facing bans on their products.

RONALD LIESEMER:

There was an attitude that if your product was not recycled, then it should not be in the marketplace. So, it was up to us in the plastics industry to solve this problem so that they could continue to package their products in plastic.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

And Liesemer found a solution. To appease government officials, the industry funded a local recycling pilot project.

RONALD LIESEMER:

The industry attitude was, "We'll set this up and get it going, but if the public wants it, they are going to have to pay for it."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The plastic bans were averted.

Do you think that they took a lesson away from how to fight the bans?

RONALD LIESEMER:

Oh, yes. It was, "We need to be doing things."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Like what?

RONALD LIESEMER:

Don’t wait until legislation appears.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You’re saying preempt it.

RONALD LIESEMER:

Yes, do it first. And we did.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Did you feel like they cared more about selling plastic than they did about making recycling work?

RONALD LIESEMER:

Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It was a way to sell plastic.

RONALD LIESEMER:

Yes. It’s a win-win situation. You get recycling going, that has its benefits and it improves the image of the material.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The industry found another way to promote plastic using recycling.

Responding to pressure from states and environmentalists to better identify the many types of plastic, it created a code to tell them apart. That code was a numbering system put inside the well-known symbol for recycling—the chasing arrows.

The problem, recyclers said, is that it left the impression that all those kinds of plastics were actually being recycled.

Coy Smith ran recycling centers in Southern California in the 1980s and early '90s

All right, there you are.

COY SMITH, Former board member, National Recycling Coalition:

During that time, the plastics industry, they went around to states and they convinced those states to pass laws—and they did this very quietly—they passed laws that required that symbol with the number on it be put on plastic containers sold in that state. I mean, for most states they did it in, recyclers didn’t even know it happened. And the next thing you know, all of the plastic containers have these symbols on them.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

COY SMITH:

It’s a bad thing.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Why?

COY SMITH:

Because the average person saw the symbol, they know the symbol and said, "Well, it’s recyclable, right?"

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It’s got three arrows.

COY SMITH:

All of a sudden, our own customers, they would bring it in and not only say it has the triangle, but it would—they would flat-out say, "It says it’s recyclable right on it." And I’d be like, "I can tell you, I can’t give this away. There’s no one that would even take it if I paid them to take it." That’s how unrecyclable it was.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Stuck with plastics they couldn’t sell, Smith and other recyclers met with representatives from the plastic industry—

Do you see the one—

COY SMITH:

That’s my name right there.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—and came up with a report identifying key problems with the numbering code.

COY SMITH:

"Some firms used it as a green marketing tool." "The code is being misused."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The plastic industry that you were working with agreed to these and signed on to this report.

COY SMITH:

They did.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So they knew that these problems existed.

COY SMITH:

They knew these problems existed, absolutely.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Recyclers and the plastic makers couldn't agree on how to change the code. Industry would only switch to a triangle, which recyclers said was too similar to the chasing arrows.

Industry wouldn’t even consider, say, no triangle, or a circle, or—

COY SMITH:

They didn’t want to go anywhere near no triangle. We said go to a square. Go to some other symbol, just not the triangle. And they said no.

Coming up with ways to have their product perceived as more recyclable and more environmental makes their product look better. They want to sell more plastic containers.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Recyclers also appealed to government regulators, but they sided with industry. They said that the chasing arrows symbol was OK, as long as it was small and on the bottom of packaging.

What if it’s got a chasing arrow sign on it and you think that means it’s getting recycled?

RONALD LIESEMER:

That was one of the comments early, that it implied that those products were being recycled. That wasn’t the intent.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Were they? Were they misleading the public?

RONALD LIESEMER:

I don’t think so, because when I looked at them, at the arrows, I thought this is a way to identify the products so that the early stages of recycling can take place.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But even as Liesemer and his colleagues were publicly promoting recycling, privately, the industry had long expressed doubt it was ever going to happen on a broad scale.

One internal document from the Society of the Plastics Industry cautioned "the techniques of cleaning and separating the mixed plastics has not been developed for large scale economic application."

Another said "there are no effective market mechanisms for mixed plastic."

And this document was candid: There is “serious doubt” widespread plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

How could they go into all of these communities and tell people "You just have to recycle" when they knew there were so many problems and so many hurdles?

LEWIS FREEMAN:

Some were very skeptical but felt they had to do it. I think others were more hopeful. There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Freeman’s boss at the time, Larry Thomas, the head of the Society of the Plastics Industry, was blunt about it.

LARRY THOMAS:

I was the front man for the plastics industry, no getting around it.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Thomas wouldn’t sit down for an on-camera interview but agreed to talk on the phone.

LARRY THOMAS:

If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment. I think they knew that the infrastructure wasn't there to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Thomas wrote a confidential memo in 1989 about the precarious position the industry was in.

“The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating at an alarmingly fast pace,” it says. “We are approaching a 'point of no return.'”

"Business is being lost; analysts are beginning to take notice."

"We must immediately undertake a major program of unprecedented proportions to reverse this fast-moving tidal wave of growing negative public perception.”

So the big plastic producers came up with a multimillion-dollar solution: advertising.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY TV ADVERTISEMENT:

When you look at plastic, you know how it helps things stay fresh and safe and light.

LEWIS FREEMAN:

It spent most of its money, millions and millions of dollars, on advertising—

PLASTIC INDUSTRY TV ADVERTISEMENT:

Plastic also saves energy.

LEWIS FREEMAN:

—to tout the virtues of plastics as a way of heading off the criticism the industry was experiencing.

RONALD LIESEMER:

When we started that advertising program, I think the image of plastics was in the mid-30s, 30-35% favorability.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

That's pretty low.

RONALD LIESEMER:

If you’re in politics, you’re in deep trouble with a 35% rating.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY TV ADVERTISEMENT:

Presenting the possibilities of plastics.

LEWIS FREEMAN:

When they were running the advertising on television, they were not about how plastics can be recycled but all the wonderful things that plastics bring to us.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY TV ADVERTISEMENT:

Plastics make it possible.

LEWIS FREEMAN:

The fact that you now don’t have to worry about dropping a shampoo bottle that was made out of glass on the bathroom floor because it’s plastic. And there’s nothing wrong in an industry promoting those kinds of things, but that’s not addressing the problem that people are criticizing you about.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

And it worked?

RONALD LIESEMER:

And it worked.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Because you went from 30% favorability—

RONALD LIESEMER:

From the, let’s say mid-30s to mid-60s.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Favorability.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY VIDEO:

Glass? That’s the past. ThermaSet is the future.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Over the next several decades—

PLASTIC INDUSTRY VIDEO:

What once was glass will soon be plastic.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—plastic became the unrivaled material of choice for consumers.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY VIDEO:

Busy lifestyles and a growing urban population mean an increase in demand for food that is fresh—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Plastic sales exploded.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY VIDEO:

—convenient—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

From 1990 to 2010, production more than doubled.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY VIDEO:

—and fast. Flexible packaging has become part of our daily lives.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

And with all that new plastic came mountains of plastic waste.

SUNIL BAGARIA, CEO, GDB International:

Here we are at our GDB South Brunswick facility.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

In New Jersey, I met a man who built a $180 million recycling business off of that waste.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Use and discard, and then this is where it all ends up.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Sunil Bagaria is national chairman of the plastics division for ISRI, the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

His company buys throwaway plastic from some of the largest big-box stores in the U.S.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Oh, my God, what is this?

SUNIL BAGARIA:

This is just hangers, one type of plastic.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Why are these all here?

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Well, you would imagine that when you take a garment off the rack and take it to the checkout counter, then this should go back.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

That they would just reuse it.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Yeah. But they said, "Oh, you know what? We'll just buy new hangers. In the meantime, let me just recycle this."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Oh, boy. This hanger gets used one time.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

One time.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Starting in the late '90s, Bagaria and other recycling brokers had a one-word answer to the growing plastic waste problem: China.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

I mean, China did a big one for the recycling industry, I must say. Because as long as it remotely resembled plastic, they wanted it.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

They would take it.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Polystyrene, PET, PVC, polypropylene. Because that's how big a demand of manufacturing was there in China. They wanted raw material. "Give me raw material"—that's all they wanted.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How long did that go on for?

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Almost 20 years. But later we surely realized that there was always another aspect of what was going on in China.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Which was what?

SUNIL BAGARIA:

They would just take the low-hanging fruits.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The good stuff.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Good stuff, easy to do. And the remaining plastic waste will then be disposed of.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Eventually, the reality of what was happening in China became clear.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

These Chinese children spend most of their waking hours between plumes of smoke and mountains of plastic.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

And in 2018, China stopped taking imported plastic waste.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Now the country is trying to clean up its image.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Because we thought that it was getting recycled gave us the freedom—"OK, no problem. Let me continue to use it. It is ultimately getting recycled. What is the problem?"

We never asked the question, "Are they doing it the right way? Are we damaging the environment more in the name of recycling?"

LAURA SULLIVAN:

When the recycling market in China went away, Bagaria and other brokers scrambled to find a new home for their plastic, and countries like Indonesia saw a business opportunity.

Last fall, I met up with Bagaria there. He was checking out a recycling company that he sells his plastic to.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

This is his factory.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is your factory.

MALE FACTORY OWNER:

Yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Bagaria had come to make sure his plastic was actually being recycled and turned into tiny pellets that are used to make new plastic products.

SUNIL BAGARIA:

Here is your pellets.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Ah, there they are!

SUNIL BAGARIA:

This is the holding tank.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Hot pellets.

How much responsibility do you feel like you have over what's happening here?

SUNIL BAGARIA:

We are the shipper of the scrap. That all originates with us. We could ship scrap and hope that it is being recycled in the way it should be, or the other way is come here, see how serious he is about doing it the right way.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But there are growing concerns here that a lot of plastic waste is not being handled the right way, and Indonesian officials are trying to prevent what happened in China from happening here.

Is this one of the big priorities here?

DENI SURJANTORO, Spokesman, Indonesian Customs:

[Speaking Indonesian] We have some priority issues and one of them is plastic waste. Another priority is narcotics.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So, contaminated plastic trash is as big a problem for you guys as narcotics and drugs coming into the country.

DENI SURJANTORO:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Wow.

Last year, customs found that half the containers of plastic waste they inspected—

FEMALE JOURNALIST:

Sir! Sir! Can you explain a little bit?

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—were contaminated with trash and plastic that can’t be recycled.

We wanted to see for ourselves what was happening to the plastic coming here.

Right there? That opening?

One recycling company here caught our attention—

Yeah, PT New Harvestindo International.

—based on Indonesian customs documents we’d obtained.

One hundred and ninety-one containers being held right now. Let's just go knock and see if maybe someone will talk to us.

With the help of an Indonesian journalist, we tried to speak to someone at New Harvestindo, but we were told there was no one available.

FIRA ABDURACHMAN, Indonesian journalist:

We need to confirm if the data that we have is correct or not.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Can we come in and look? Looks like a lot of shipping containers.

FIRA ABDURACHMAN:

Yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I think we’re in the right place.

FIRA ABDURACHMAN:

Yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The customs document we had said the company was getting plastic from the U.S.

With no one from New Harvestindo willing to speak to us, we still wanted to know what they were doing with all those bales of plastic waste and whether it was all being recycled.

We’d heard about an environmental activist who’s been tracking what happens to the plastic coming into Indonesia.

Hi.

I met up with Yuyun Ismawati in a small rural community nearby.

This place, it's huge.

YUYUN ISMAWATI, Co-founder, Nexus3 Foundation:

Yeah. It's huge and very wide. You can see from that corner to the end of that valley over there.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What's it like to look at a field this size and see it covered in plastic trash?

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

I can show you the pictures.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Oh, really? You took pictures?

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

Yes.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Yeah, I'd love to see that. Yeah.

We took a seat by the side of the road and she showed me pictures she'd collected of plastic that locals said had been dumped here.

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

The sacks are from a plastic company. When I came here in June, I asked them where did they get this from? And then they said it’s from Harvest, they call it.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Harvest.

Waste pickers would look for plastics of value, and the rest would be burned.

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

So this is how it looks like when they burn it.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So it’s like a big fire on this pit.

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

Yeah, yeah. People with respiratory problem, they really get affected. And some children got hospitalized.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

After the community complained to the government about the burning, the dumping stopped here.

I mean, how big a problem do you think these kinds of dumping grounds are in Indonesia?

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

Big. They are everywhere around this area. The recycling system that we have at the moment, it’s not really recycling because some part of it exported—being exported all over the world to be "recycled," but you never know whether it’s really being recycled overseas or not. There is no proof.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

We reached out to the two recycling companies known locally as “Harvest.” New Harvestindo still wouldn’t respond to us, and the other company denied it was behind the dumping.

But later that night, on a back street, I met up with a New Harvestindo worker who agreed to talk to me about what the company does with its plastic waste.

Hi.

MALE WORKER:

Hi.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Thank you so much for coming to meet me.

As long as we didn’t disclose his identity.

When you get a bale of plastic, how much of that bale is plastic that the company wants and how much of it is stuff that is just plastic that you’re not going to do anything with?

MALE WORKER:

[Speaking Indonesian] It depends on the condition of the bales. Many of them cannot be recycled anymore and are dirty.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What do you do with the rest of it?

MALE WORKER:

[Speaking Indonesian] If it’s not useful, we put it into the community.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How long has that been going on for?

MALE WORKER:

[Speaking Indonesian] It used to be only once a month, but now it can be two or three times a week.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

He told me he could take me to a place where the company had recently been dumping plastic.

After a 30-minute drive, we reached a quiet neighborhood with an area hidden from the road. The smell of burnt plastic was in the air, and all around, there were sacks of plastic, and big piles, too.

This is from Purchase, New York. Yeah, this is totally American. This is from California. This is a pile of U.S. recycling.

New Harvestindo eventually got back to us and denied it was responsible for doing anything that damaged the environment. It said in an email that it had a comprehensive system to handle plastic waste and it follows all Indonesian laws and regulations.

The company has not been charged with any wrongdoing related to dumping.

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

In the last 20 years we’ve seen more environmental degradations and environmental problems in Indonesia. Because we are struggling to clean up the modern debris and modern litter in Indonesia, the additional burden of waste from overseas, I don’t know how we are going to handle it.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You’re saying you’ve got plenty as it is?

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

Yes, because we are struggling to handle our own waste.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

A lot of that waste is ending up in the ocean. One study estimates that 60% of ocean plastic comes from Asia.

What do you think Americans need to know?

YUYUN ISMAWATI:

Americans need to know that your waste ended up here. And the consumption and lifestyle that we have, I think it’s—you have to rethink, because we have to reduce the amount of plastics that we produce at the moment.

CROWD:

[Chanting] Save our Earth before it's too late!

LAURA SULLIVAN:

That message is reinvigorating a backlash against plastic, the likes of which the industry hasn’t seen for decades.

FEMALE SPEAKER:

I can talk loud!

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It’s facing opposition to the construction of new plants—

FEMALE SPEAKER:

I said everybody up here said they don't want the plant. There shouldn't be any more talk about it!

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

As of today, plastic bags are banned in Jersey City—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—and plastic bans are spreading across the country.

MALE RALLY SPEAKER:

This is our moment, California. Let's get these bills passed. Let's do right by our future.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

A major showdown is shaping up in California. The Legislature wants to impose new fees on plastic makers and restrict single-use plastics.

STATE REP. LORENA GONZALEZ (D-San Diego):

This is a big moment.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

This is a big moment.

LORENA GONZALEZ:

Yeah. So if the California market changes, we know it's going to put pressure on the kind of products that are out there.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Amid the backlash, I headed to the Texas Gulf Coast, where oil and gas companies are under pressure from climate change and increasingly turning to plastics, now their biggest growth market.

We reached out to more than a dozen major plastic makers; the only one that would sit down with us was Chevron Phillips.

Jim Becker is the vice president of sustainability.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You’ve seen California, the legislation, some bans across the country and a lot of targets on single-use plastic.

JIM BECKER, VP, Sustainability, Chevron Phillips:

Our view is you have to be very careful with that because sometimes the substitute products can have a bigger environmental impact than the thing you are banning. So, we don’t think banning these products is necessarily the right way to go.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What does Chevron Phillips want to see happen?

JIM BECKER:

We support, actually, the ACC goals—American Chemistry Council—goals of getting plastic waste out of landfills by, I think the date is 2040.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Chevron Phillips would like to see all of that plastic recycled back to make new plastic things.

JIM BECKER:

Yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How do you get it to a place where 100% of this plastic getting recycled—how do you get there?

JIM BECKER:

Much more education needs to happen on how to recycle. You also have to really build up the infrastructure for collection. We’re going to have to invest in innovation, because some of these technologies still need to be further developed.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

If the oil industry is able to get 100% of the material recycled—

JIM BECKER:

Yeah.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—doesn’t that affect the bottom line?

JIM BECKER:

Yes, it would. It would. But the alternative is having plastic waste in the environment. We don’t want that.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Do you think that the company feels so strongly that it is willing to make less money?

JIM BECKER:

I think that’s true. I guess I think of it more as an investment in managing plastic waste.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Once again, the industry is pushing recycling. Today its main lobbying group is the American Chemistry Council, and until recently its vice president of plastics was Steve Russell.

Do you fundamentally think that in the United States recycling could ramp up to a capacity to handle the vast majority of plastic that's being produced?

STEVE RUSSELL:

So, I understand that there's a lot of skepticism around that, because the systems today have not kept pace. Our system is woefully inadequate and it needs dramatic investment. It needs improvement.

But the proof here is the dramatic amount of investment that's happening right now. Our member companies, SABIC and Shell and LyondellBasell, all of whom have made major announcements in traditional and advanced recycling to begin to intervene in that space in order to bring their scale, their technical know-how and their capacity to start providing products that are based on waste.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But you're talking about couple of companies. There's also an entire industry that's going to triple production by 2050. How are those two things going to meet anywhere in the middle?

STEVE RUSSELL:

It's not going to happen this month or by the end of the year, but we're moving now. Old types of recycling need to be modernized and new types of recycling need to be brought on board. The good news is they're coming.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Back in Oregon, I found one of these new technologies. In South Portland, the plastic industry was showcasing a demonstration project.

And on the day I stopped by, local lawmakers had been invited in to hear about the benefits of a new sorting machine that industry says will make recycling plastic more economical.

MALE TOUR GUIDE:

If you want to step up above, you can see the machine in action.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

One of the sponsors was the American Chemistry Council.

STEVE RUSSELL:

The idea behind that particular facility is if we improve the way that recyclables move down the conveyor belt, so they get separated, we're going to create better, cleaner streams of like materials. When we do that, we end up with bales that are more easy to sell and that are more easy for consumer goods companies to incorporate into their packaging.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But as we continued our reporting in Oregon, we heard about a surprisingly similar effort that took place more than 25 years ago at a recycling company 50 miles away called Garten Services.

WILL POSEGATE:

We’re going into the office. I’ve got a couple of newspaper articles I want to show you from the past.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The plastic industry had brought a demonstration project here in 1994.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The Garten Foundation of Salem unveiled a new sorting machine that may change the way we recycle forever. This million-dollar plastic sorting system in Salem is the first of its kind in the world.

WILL POSEGATE:

So here we’ve collected some old newspaper articles from 1994—25 years ago.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Will Posegate is the chief operating officer of Garten.

WILL POSEGATE:

I mean, it says "sorts out the problems."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You got a sorting machine.

WILL POSEGATE:

A sorting machine, that’s right.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You got this from—

WILL POSEGATE:

From the Plastics Council.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The Plastics Council.

WILL POSEGATE:

They wanted us to sort plastics when people thought plastics might be starting to be a problem.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Today the American Plastics Council unveiled the machine.

MALE NEWSREADER :

They say residents will put all their plastic containers in one bag.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

It just keeps getting better, doesn’t it?

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What happened to it?

WILL POSEGATE:

Years later, we shut it down because there was no way to make money at it. And we sold that $1.5 million machine for scrap.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You sold the machine for scrap?

WILL POSEGATE:

For scrap. That’s right. It didn’t make any sense. And I’m afraid that the same thing is happening right now.

This is the plastic that nobody wants.

The whole idea about, "Oh, just sort better. It’ll be great. Let’s make more single-use plastics"—don’t buy into that. Not a good idea for the environment. Not a good idea for the Earth. Not a good idea for your wallet.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You can’t sort your way out of this.

WILL POSEGATE:

No. No. Period.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It all made me wonder whether the plastic industry is just recycling old ideas.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD:

They said I couldn’t dream. Called me a piece of trash and swore that’s all I’d ever be.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Like in the '90s, the industry has been spending money on ads—

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD:

And now I’m what I've always wanted to be.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—encouraging consumers to recycle—

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD 2:

Remember, a lot of the plastic packaging that you have in your kitchen is recyclable.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD 3:

Smokejumping is the pinnacle of wild land firefighting.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—and touting the virtues of plastic.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD 3:

We're covered in plastic-based gear from head to toe.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD 4:

This is the world we see. Let’s be the ones that came together to change the world.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What do you think?

LEWIS FREEMAN:

Déjà vu all over again.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Why do you say that? Tell me about that.

LEWIS FREEMAN:

This is the same kind of thinking that ran in the '90s.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

What do you think the messaging is here?

LEWIS FREEMAN:

It’s showing the people picking up the litter. That kind of implies that that’s where the responsibility lay. I think the chemical industry, and the plastics industry specifically, need to take very seriously this reaction that’s going on. I don’t think this kind of advertising is helpful to them at all.

PLASTIC INDUSTRY AD 5:

Lately there's been a lot of talk about how plastics impact our lives, for better or worse.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The reality is, for all the ads and promises over the years, it's estimated that no more than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled.

And the guy industry tapped decades ago to get recycling going isn’t surprised. I showed Ron Liesemer industry reports we found dating as far back as the 1970s.

And this one talks about the cost of separating plastics from other trash. There are various types of plastics, and that the cost of new plastic is so low that sorting and reprocessing used plastic can’t be justified economically. And this was in 1973. Have we made any progress?

RONALD LIESEMER:

I would say that their conclusions in 1973, you say, are still true. The economics that are described there still prevail today and likely will prevail tomorrow.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

It's hard to have faith in the plastics industry when it got out of its crisis in the '90s by telling Americans to recycle, even though they knew it was not economically viable. The crisis passed. Now here we are again in a crisis. Plastics are once again on the low end of the public's opinion and now the industry is telling the public again to recycle.

STEVE RUSSELL:

The industry is not telling the public just to recycle. We've got to fix the recycling system; clearly that's job one. But more importantly, we have to look at reuse models; using less where we can; developing new materials, which is the plastic maker's responsibility, that can be better recycled; and also really important that we deploy the technologies that are now available to us at scale.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

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

RONALD LIESEMER:

No. No, this is about all of us understanding that we each have a role to play in making the system that we have better and achieving the goals that—I think everybody would have to say we cannot continue with business as usual. It's time for change, and this is that time.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

Let's put these away and let me show you another recycling label.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Back in Oregon, I put the question to David Allaway.

The question that people are going to have is what are they supposed to do to make this better?

DAVID ALLAWAY:

The common refrain in this whole field is that it's all up to consumers. And that's the way recycling has been sold as well, OK? And you just need to sort out your recyclables and do your part. Do your part, save the Earth, recycle.

And when it comes to understanding and reducing the environmental impacts of materials, including packaging, consumers have the lowest amount of leverage. The big leverage is with the producers. Producers should disclose the environmental impacts of their materials publicly. And by impacts, I don't mean whether or not it can be recycled. I mean what is the carbon footprint? What are the toxics emissions? How much water was withdrawn to produce this product? That needs to be—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

The effect on the planet—

DAVID ALLAWAY:

The effect on the planet, the actual effect.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—that this product has.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

That's right.

Here's this flexible bag, and it's a plastic-metal laminate—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Allaway is a leading authority on the environmental impacts of materials, like plastic.

So, you're saying consumers stand here and think, "What can I recycle?" But the question really is, "How do I reduce?"

DAVID ALLAWAY:

Reduce the impact. The producers know what the environmental impacts of these different formats are, but they don't disclose it. Instead, what they disclose is the recycling logo. Because what it allows industry to do, is it allows industry to keep the conversation focused on recycling and never move the conversation on to the bigger issues, which are the full environmental impacts of all this stuff.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

But it isn’t just industry that’s kept consumers focused on recycling for so long. Environmentalists have, too.

Looking back, do you think putting the banner on the Mobro was a mistake?

ANNIE LEONARD:

You know, I have looked at that picture and pondered that for decades. I think we were naive. I think we were overly optimistic about the potential of recycling, and perpetuating that narrative led us astray. I mean, absolutely societywide we bought this myth that recycling will solve the problem and we don't need to worry about the amount of plastic being produced.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

In Washington last November, during America Recycles Week—

ANDREW WHEELER, Administrator, EPA:

Welcome to EPA’s 2019 America Recycles Innovation Fair.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was talking up the future of recycling.

ANDREW WHEELER:

In many ways we’re just getting started. We need to increase the interest in and demand for recycled materials and more products made from recycled materials.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Companies came with their latest ideas.

MALE VENDOR:

It’s 100% recycled content.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Some, like Keurig, saw a need for better technology.

Hi, I’m Laura Sullivan, NPR and PBS FRONTLINE. What’s happening with K-Cups?

MONIQUE OXENDER, Chief sustainability officer, Keurig Dr Pepper:

K-Cups are going recyclable.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I mean, you’ve got a couple hurdles, in the sense that you’re going to have to have people sorting out tiny cups, right?

MONIQUE OXENDER:

Ideally, mechanical sorting.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How many K-Cups do you sell?

MONIQUE OXENDER:

About 11 billion.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Eleven billion. A year? So the idea would be mechanical sorters pick out 11 billion K-Cups, right?

MONIQUE OXENDER:

Ideally. We want all of them back.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Others, like Colgate-Palmolive, saw a need for better education.

JENNIFER BOADA-RODRIGUEZ, Senior technical associate, Colgate-Palmolive:

So we’re here today to showcase our first-of-its-kind recyclable tube.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So if you put this in your curbside tonight, do you think that this tube would be recycled?

JENNIFER BOADA-RODRIGUEZ:

We need more work. We’re working with other organizations to get the word out.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So not yet?

JENNIFER BOADA-RODRIGUEZ:

Not yet. Not yet.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

I notice that you guys put the big chasing arrows.

JENNIFER BOADA-RODRIGUEZ:

Correct.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Do you think that because it’s not quite recyclable yet that that might be a little misleading?

JENNIFER BOADA-RODRIGUEZ:

We don’t think that we’re being misleading because technically it is recyclable.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

As I made my way through the innovation fair—

JERRED JONES, Program representative, Keep America Beautiful:

We are Keep America Beautiful. We’re a not-for-profit.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

You guys have been around for a long time.

JERRED JONES:

We’ve been around for over 65 years.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

—the mood was optimistic.

Less than 10% of plastic has actually ever been recycled. What do you think?

JERRED JONES:

Well, that is a challenge. And I think what’s good is that we’re all working together to help improve some of those recycling habits and understanding behavior.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Do you think that America can recycle its way out of this plastic crisis?

JERRED JONES:

I believe with the proper infrastructure and the proper education and we all work together as a collective, we can.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

The world is flooded with plastic garbage.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—18 billion pounds of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year.

MALE NEWSREADER:

—the equivalent of a garbage truck dumped every minute.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How does this conflict compare to what you saw happen in the '80s and '90s when this last came up with this kind of fervor?

ANNIE LEONARD:

Well, one thing that's different is the actual ecological context is different, that we're really bumping up against ecological limits. We can't delay this for another 10, 20, 30 years or we're going to be—

LAURA SULLIVAN:

So this is it.

ANNIE LEONARD:

This is it.

For the oil and gas industry, the stakes are higher, too, because single-use plastic is their Plan B. They're not going to be able to continue to drill that oil and gas and burn it for energy anymore because the climate can't sustain it, so this is their lifeline. They are going to double down on single-use plastic like we have never seen, so we're heading towards a real battle. This is it. This is the big war.

MALE NEWSREADER:

The U.N. estimates by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

MALE NEWSREADER:

Plastic in your food.

FEMALE NEWSREADER:

Microplastics are invading our water supply.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

How big a moment is this?

JIM BECKER:

I think it’s a transitional moment. I think it is a big moment.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Biggest you’ve seen in your career?

JIM BECKER:

It’s the biggest I’ve seen. This is the first time you’ve ever seen companies from across the whole supply chain all coming together to say, "We need to fix this."

So you can talk about this stuff a lot. We have to show hard results. We have to start showing success. And we know that.

LAURA SULLIVAN:

Forty years on, despite a plastic crisis that’s been getting worse, the industry’s future seems bright.

Demand for low-cost plastic continues to grow, and the production of new plastic is rapidly expanding.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

Science tells us that we need to significantly reduce our use of materials overall, and yet for the most part, the policymakers are still focused with laserlike intensity on recycling. There's nothing wrong with promoting recycling except when recycling sucks all the oxygen out of the room and we never do anything else. For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country has been about the recycle part of "reduce, reuse, recycle."

LAURA SULLIVAN:

That wasn't an accident.

DAVID ALLAWAY:

No, it was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured.

53:52
3815_OpioidsInc_SG_12
Opioids, Inc.
June 23, 2020