‘Plastic Wars’ Documentary Omits Recent Innovations in Recycling Technology

If you haven’t had a chance to see Plastic Wars, the documentary produced by NPR and Frontline that aired on PBS stations on March 31, you should watch it. You won’t learn anything new, but you will see why Asian countries are drowning in plastic waste and why mechanical recycling is failing. We already knew both of those things.

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The opening few minutes contained many of the videos we’ve seen before, including the sea turtle with the plastic straw in its nostril. About half of the documentary was filmed in Indonesia, with the rest looking at recycling plants in Oregon.

Laura Sullivan, the investigative journalist featured in the documentary, went to great lengths to show how the plastics industry knew as far back as the 1970s that something had to be done about waste plastic. She scoured the archives at DuPont and traced the development of plastic as it became the ubiquitous material it is today.

Strolling through a supermarket with David Allaway, policy analyst at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, Sullivan asked about the recyclability of the various packaging throughout the store. While most of the packaging contained the triangular recycling symbol, Allaway said that most was not recyclable at any facilities in Oregon.

We’ve discussed this before in articles and blogs in PlasticsToday, and the unfortunate fact is that it’s true. Just because something says “recyclable” on the label or has the logo on the bottom of the package doesn’t mean it can be recycled, even if consumers put the item in the blue curbside bin. Demand for #1 PET (soda bottles, etc.) and #2 HDPE (milk/juice jugs) is high. Companies will purchase those two materials to recycle into rPET and rHDPE. Mixed plastic waste (#3 to #7) is a huge issue. Nobody wants it.

Coy Smith, former board member at the National Recycling Coalition, commented that the plastics industry knew these problems with mixed plastic waste existed and “had serious doubts it will ever be viable” for recycling.

Lewis Freeman, former VP of Government Affairs at the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), now the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), said that the industry “never had an enthusiastic belief that recycling would work in a significant way.” Ads that the industry ran back in the 1990s promoted the virtues of plastics, which was “okay” said Freeman, “but those don’t solve the problem.”

Larry Thomas, former SPI president, also commented by telephone, “[The industry] knew the infrastructure wasn’t there to make recycling work.”

The massive mess of plastic waste in Indonesia is an incredible problem, and more mixed bales of plastic waste are being shipped to that country. The problem is that they can’t use contaminated plastic, either, so they sort out the usable plastics and in many cases openly burn the mixed plastic waste in fields. Plastic's success has been its greatest downfall. With Indonesia “struggling to handle” its own waste, it can’t take on more waste from the United States or other countries.

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