The Current

Industry has known for decades that most plastic just can't be recycled, says investigative journalist

Alberta is planning to become the plastic recycling hub for Western Canada, but investigative journalist Laura Sullivan says despite decades of publicity, the majority of plastic still can't be recycled effectively.

Federal government to ban 6 single-use plastics, as Alberta plans recycling hub

A labourer stands next to a pile of plastic bottles at a recycling centre in Wuhan, in China's Hubei province, in 2010. (Reuters)

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There has been a decades-long push to get the public to recycle plastic, even though the people behind the idea knew most plastic is too costly and difficult to recycle, says one investigative journalist.

"They have known since the 1970s how difficult and almost impossible it is to recycle the vast majority of plastic," said Laura Sullivan, a three-time Peabody Award-winning investigative correspondent for NPR News. 

Sullivan conducted an in-depth investigation into the recycling industry, and said the problem starts with trying to separate the recyclable material from the non-recyclable, which adds to the overall high cost of the process. 

"Then, most importantly, the plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it," she told The Current's Matt Galloway, adding that this means some recycled items cannot be recycled again.

"In one speech, a former industry insider said that it was unlikely that the vast majority of plastic would ever be economically viable to recycle."

Residents are still getting used to the idea of separating glass and paper from their garbage in 1988. 2:36

Earlier this week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that the province will work to become a major plastics recycling hub for western North America, as part of his government's new natural gas strategy. The federal government has also announced its intention to ban six types of single-use plastic by the end of 2021, but insisted the move would support, not hinder, Alberta's plans.

Announcing plans to reach zero plastic waste by 2030, the federal government's website noted that "every year, Canadians throw away 3 million tonnes of plastic waste, only 9% of which is recycled, meaning the vast majority of plastics end up in landfills."

Sullivan's investigation looked at plastic industry records over the last 40 years. She spoke to industry insiders involved in promoting plastic recycling to the general public.

She said that "in the 1990s, plastic was under fire, that people didn't like plastic, there was just too much trash and they needed to do something about it."

"The obvious answer was to recycle it all, but as we know, they knew they couldn't do that," she said.

"It began this campaign to sort of subtly suggest and imply and even outright say, 'You can recycle plastic,' when they knew that wasn't true."

'It is still cheaper to use virgin oil fresh out of the ground to make plastic than it is to use plastic trash to make plastic,' says Laura Sullivan, an NPR journalist who conducted an in-depth investigation into the recycling industry. (Linda Fittante)

At the time, Sullivan said the industry was hopeful that technology would improve and recycling costs would become more manageable, but that didn't happen.

She said her investigation looked at 12 of the most highly touted projects to increase the amount of plastic being recycled, and found that all of them "fell apart" within five to seven years.

"They were started with great fanfare, they got a ton of publicity ... and then they died quietly."

Conspiracy theory vs. complex system

Christina Seidel, executive director of the Recycling Council of Alberta (RCA), said accusations about the shortcomings of plastic recycling "almost [border] on a conspiracy theory."

"It really just is a complex system that is hard to make work," she said. 

According to its website, the RCA's mission is to promote a "circular economy" in Alberta. While in a linear economy, things are made, used and then disposed of, a circular economy "keeps products and materials circulating within the economy at their highest value for as long as possible, through reuse, recycling, remanufacturing, sharing and delivering products as services," the website says.

Seidel said the organization is exploring a number of options to help to achieve that goal.

One idea is that if they "get the actual producers of the materials more involved in the whole system, they're the ones that actually understand how those plastics are made and how they can be remade," she said. 

Sullivan said the people she spoke to were not "conspiracy theorists."

"These are the people who actually ran the program — telling people to recycle in the '90s — [now] saying that they knew that recycling was not going to work," she said.

"That's not a conspiracy theory so much as it is a plan that they had to get out of a crisis of trash."

The Current requested interviews with Canadian oil and plastic industry groups, but no one was made available. 

Canadians are among the world’s top producers of plastic waste, but a lot of what gets put in a blue box doesn’t actually end up getting recycled. A large portion of what people think is being recycled is sent overseas to countries such as the Philippines or Malaysia where it ends up in illegal junkwards. This week, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte said he’d “declare war” on Canada if it doesn’t take back tonnes of garbage shipped to his country. The Weekly’s Wendy Mesley speaks to a leading environmentalist and investigates whether recycling is broken. 10:09

The Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, an industry group for plastic companies, provided a statement saying it is "concerned with the emphasis on banning certain products solely because they are widely used in society and improperly managed at end of use." 

The group said it would help the government work toward a circular economy.

Sullivan said the problem is that "the economics don't work now any more than they did 30 years ago." 

"It is still cheaper to use virgin oil fresh out of the ground to make plastic than it is to use plastic trash to make plastic," she said. 

"No matter what the industry has done, no matter what they have funded, no matter what expensive recycling machines that never made any economic sense ... they cannot get around this fundamental problem."


Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Jodie Martinson and Paul MacInnis.

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