Fossil Fuels are Lying to You About Recycling
Art by Kyra Black
Since elementary school, we are taught that recycling is a core tenant of reducing wasteful plastic. Even now, at my apartment, my recycling bin is full of plastic containers, bottles, and packaging. This movement towards recycling began in the 1970s, associated with being environmentally conscious and hailed as a cost-effective way to decrease the production of greenhouse gasses. But it also has provided a way for people to use the convenience of plastic without having to change their lifestyle. As Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, stated, “If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment.” Recycling ignores the core issues of climate change by enabling the fossil fuel industry to avoid taking responsibility for their role in creating plastic waste. They tell us that recycling can fix the climate crisis and decrease plastic waste, but they are lying to you.
The fossil fuel and petrochemical industries have spread propaganda that we can keep our wasteful consumer lifestyle with no consequences. And yet, only 9% of all plastic trash has ever been recycled. By saying that all we need to do is recycle, fossil fuel companies sell consumers convenience without the guilt of contributing to fossil fuel and exasperating climate change. Lewis Freeman, former vice president of government affairs for the industry's lobbying group, then called the Society of the Plastics Industry, expresses this sentiment by describing how this lie was validated through fossil fuel-sponsored advertisements that supported recycling. These companies have subtly shifted the blame onto consumers, saying that the trash crisis and changing climate is their fault. According to Ron Liesemer, former DuPont manager, fossil fuel companies helped implement recycling because it guaranteed that their products would still be used while simultaneously improving the appearance of plastic and adverting legislative bans. Thus, fossil fuel companies and plastic producers can continue to make massive profits by perpetuating this deceptive idea. This is further highlighted in an episode of PBS Frontline called Plastic Wars, which asserted that plastic producers’ motives are to sell more plastic and make larger profits, regardless of its consequences. The fossil fuel industry sold Americans the idea that recycling would work, when they knew in reality that it was not economically viable on a large scale and would do little to mitigate climate change.
Fossil fuel companies have also continued to avoid any consequences and accountability through lobbying. Robert J. Brulle, a Drexel University sociologist, stated that from 2000 - 2016, more than $2 billion was spent on lobbying by major sectors including polluters like the fossil fuel industry, transportation corporations, and utilities. Additionally, fossil fuel companies’ spending completely dwarfed the spending from environmental organizations and renewable energy corporations by a ratio of 10:1. Today the fossil fuel industry’s main industrial lobbying group is the American Chemistry Council, whose members include ExxonMobil, Dow, and DuPont. This group has relentlessly claimed that recycling is the solution to decreasing fossil fuels and plastic production. But instead of repurposing plastic into new products, it often goes through “chemical recycling,” a process that turns plastic into oil and gas to be burned. As a result, this contributes to climate change and produces toxic chemicals that disproportionately harm marginalized communities. Lobbying groups representing fossil fuel corporations have immense influence. They sway legislative policies by controlling the flow of information to elected officials. According to Lee Drutman, fossil fuel organizations have invested large sums of money to saturate the “intellectual environment” and overload the minds of policymakers.
Despite the fabrication that recycling will help save the Earth, there are other solutions to addressing the core issues of climate change and plastic pollution. David Allaway, a senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, purports that we must directly address plastic producers and fossil fuel companies, shifting the blame back onto these industries and away from the consumer. These companies must be held accountable for their high release of carbon emissions, contributions to climate change, and plastic pollution. This can be done by implementing immediate legislative bans on plastic, placing heavy fees on plastic producers, and restricting single-use plastics. It is essential that policymakers and environmental organizations put pressure on fossil fuel companies. Because the fossil fuel industry will not be able to continue drilling for oil and burn it as a source of energy forever, they are going to double down on single-use plastics. Instead of emphasizing recycling, we must stress the need to reduce our consumption and reuse what is already available.
However, the question still remains: should we recycle?
Overall, according to Pieter van Beukering, professor of environmental economics at the Free University of Amsterdam, recycling does have a lower carbon footprint, produces less greenhouse gas emissions, and does not require as many new natural resources. But recycling is meant to make people feel good without addressing the core issues behind plastic waste and climate change. It costs resources and produces pollution, in everything from the burning of fossil fuels that power recycling plants to the trucks that pick up recycling. In turn, this allows fossil fuel companies to continue profiting off the illusion of recycling, claiming that it is reducing carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Overall, fossil fuel companies have fabricated a myth that recycling will solve all our problems, so we do not have to worry about new plastic production. To combat this, we must hold plastic producers and fossil fuel companies accountable for perpetuating climate change. We can do this by focusing less on recycling and directing more attention towards increasing pressure to pass legislative plastic bans, levying heavy fees on plastic producers, and eliminate single-use plastics.