Big Oil has been lying about plastic recycling since at least 1974

Originally published at:


2020: the year of saying the quiet parts loud and louder.


Well, I guess 2020 can’t be all good news, all the time.


I keep hoping something will come of this:

So far, not so much.

(Paywalled, can’t find a free copy, but you get the idea.)


The good news is that plastic has a lot of carbon which is locked away from the carbon cycle.

Of course, the bad news is that it released about 6 KG of CO2 to create that one pound of plastic, but… gotta crack a few eggs to destroy the environment, right?


But hey, global warming is all the fault of individuals. The Libertarians said so! /s


At a local recycling center in New Hampshire my brother-in-law asked how they recycled the batteries people put in the special battery area. The guy told him in confidence “we just toss them in the incinerator.”

I’ve been pretty depressed lately-- it’s finally dawned on me that our current civilization is wholly without the means to save itself, because the people with the most money (and power) think it’s not “cost effective” to keep the world from choking to death.


Please be assured - we have the tech and the science to save the planet. We can totally fix everything.

The problem is that we are currently in a bubble period where we are starting to have minor problems related to global warming, but things are basically OK, and should stay that way for another 10-20 years.

And we have a bunch of people in charge of everything who are going to be dead of old age within 10-20 years.

So why should they sacrifice anything at all to prevent a problem that will only really show itself after they die of natural causes? Not like they care that their children and grandchildren will die horribly, after all, they will already be dead. (And yes, I have literally been told this by older people.)

I was hoping that the fires and storms would help convince people to overthrow the olds, and start dealing with this, but…

(Note: Not all old people are selfish, self-centered, sociopathic people who don’t care what happens after they are gone. There are a lot of older people who are with the program and are good people.)


Sadly, Greenpeace has been saying this for decades - including in a port-blocking action I participated in over 25 years ago - but only generates news when they’re saving whales and fur seals.


Also worth noting- basically nothing has been recycled since 2017 when China stopped buying all our garbage. The entire industry was based on a single market that was willing to buy the stuff at a high enough price. Once China stopped doing that, recycling stopped making economic sense. Planet Money did a story on that too.

Municipalities are continuing to collect recycling because they’re worried about losing the effort put into training all of us to do it, and are just hoping the market comes back. Like maybe Bangladesh or someone else will start buying our garbage.

It sucks, but recycling has more or less always been a lie. It was always supposed to be the last resort anyway. There’s a reason it’s the third thing in “Reduce, reuse, recycle”. However middle class people latched on to recycling as a mental excuse not to change anything about their lifestyles. Bottled water became morally acceptable as long as you put the bottle in a trash bin painted a different color.

The exception is aluminum, some of which is recycled domestically, so there is a small market still.


wasn’t there an episode of michael moore’s tv nation (mid 90s) that discussed how fraught the whole recycling issue is? iirc, they set up a complicated set of bins to see how much tedium suburbanites might put up with in the name of “easy environmentalism”?


So what is the solution here? Clearly a lot of plastics go into packaging. Do we start putting a tax on each bottle of drink, for example, to ensure they are at least returned? Implement tax funded recycling, which may not be profitable, keeps plastic out of land fills? Doesn’t Japan do a successful recycling program?

The other side of coin is - do we switch back to other forms of packaging? More cardboard or paper enclosures? Possibly more glass and aluminum for some things?


In some cases, we may have to accept what was in place since the dawn of humanity: packaging and containers made of materials that decompose but are not transparent. Plant fibers (bamboo, kenaf, hemp) and leaves or even clay. In other cases there seem to be flashy news reports every year about some kid coming up with a plastic replacement involving jellyfish or somesuch, then you never hear about it again.


There’s also the issue that much of the plastic is food plastics as well. It’s why I avoid eating yogurt anymore. It’s just frustrating that so many food containers are plastic and not metal or glass. I read about some stores trying out bring your own container solutions but I doubt within capitalism that this will take off.

Also, the whole system really needs to be dismantled since it’s all production-push rather than consumer-pull which leads to more waste in all aspects. Even food production isn’t immune to this.


If you want to be even more depressed watch the 2016 documentary Plastic China to see what happens to the plastic that is recycled (and the individuals who do the actual work of recycling it).


People hate on me when I offer my solutions for questions like “what do we do about bottled soda?” That’s because my solution is that we should stop producing bottled soda, or at the very least drop consumption of it down to something like 1-5% of where it is now. I believe this is the solution for a whole range of products and activities.

And I think this should be a matter of public policy. It has to happen at the governmental level. Decades of advertising have fundamentally changed our relationship to consumption. We really have become consumers. It won’t be possible to change us fast enough through gentle persuasion. We will have to experience deprivation and injustice. Or we can wait for the inevitable conflicts as nations and classes contend against one another for rapidly-diminishing resources. And experience even greater deprivation and injustice.

Of course we can’t even get people to wear masks, so I don’t see a future in which we’ve deprived ourselves of the pleasures of wasteful consumption.


My takeaway here, is that the real problem that needs to be solved isn’t really about ruining the planet: It’s really about limiting the power of the rich, enough for the interests of the common people to be addressed.

Not as if that makes it easier, exactly… just that we have a very long history of struggling with that one, so it feels much less exotic.


I worked for a patent attorney and one of the spplications was an assembly for yogurt containers and this system would mold the plastic AND fill the newly molded plastic cup with yogurt on the same assembly line.


I never know what to think about plastics.

Waste-wise: In places without good waste disposal the plastic winds up as permanent litter which is awful but which I have filed mentally as more of a ‘failed state’ problem than an ‘environmental’ problem. (Where I live it’s incinerated and the waste heat is re-used, which seems pretty much ok as long as everything makes it to the incinerator and the PCBs are captured before I breath them in.)

Carbon-wise: I have no idea what the global footprint of the plastics industry is. Intuitively, it seems smarter to turn our oil into stuff rather than just burning it straightaway, but maybe that’s a meaningless distinction. My understanding is that most plastics require much LESS energy input than equivalent paper products, so bans that replace plastic packaging with paper may ultimately increase carbon footprint.

Probably all my assumptions here are wrong! I welcome debunking.


Another sad fact is that now this will turn into right-wing talking points about how recycling is a sham, therefore EVERYTHING the libs want to do is bullshit, etc.