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‘Plastic Wars’ Documentary Omits Recent Innovations in Recycling Technology

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The investigative piece goes to great lengths to show that the plastics industry had serious doubts that “recycling would work in a significant way” as far back as the 1970s. It fails to show, however, the great strides industry has made in recent years.

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.

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.

Steve Russell, former VP of the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) Plastics Division (now retired), said that there is “a lot of skepticism that we can handle all the waste plastic. We need to fix the recycling system, employ advanced technologies at scale. We all have a role to play and cannot continue with business as usual.”

The ACC put out a statement regarding the documentary, noting that all of us in the industry acknowledge the problems of recycling. “America’s plastic makers are helping to drive change and modernize today’s plastics recycling systems,” said the ACC. “From working with customers to designing reusable and more recyclable packaging, to innovating and improving traditional recycling operations, to expanding collection and investing in next-generation advanced recycling technologies that transform used packaging into completely new plastics — much of this work is underway today. We are acting now to help build a future without plastic waste.”

While the documentary rehashed the same environmental problems that have been documented by others such as National Geographic, it failed to take the next step and show the solutions that many industry corporations and entrepreneurial companies are offering.

For example, Sullivan saw huge bales of mixed waste stacked three high and running the length of the recycling facility’s building, but obviously was not aware that there are several companies that want that mixed waste that no other company will take. Companies like Encina, which uses pyrolysis to convert waste plastic into useful chemicals; Anellotech, which transforms mixed plastic waste directly into chemicals; and Brightmark Energy, which is building a commercial-scale plastics-to-fuel plant. These companies need and want that mixed plastic waste that is of no- to low-value to other recyclers.

The ACC was also disappointed that Frontline did not educate people about these exciting innovations in advanced recycling technologies that promise to offer a real solution to mixed plastic waste. “Unfortunately, Frontline failed to acknowledge this changing economic and technology landscape, or mention the industry’s rapidly growing and tangible investments in traditional and advanced plastics recycling technologies and their growing impact.”

The Plastics Industry Association also released a statement from Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO, on the documentary: “The stories that were told in the Frontline and NPR program, unfortunately, are misleading and missed the opportunity to positively engage with the people in our industry who are trying to improve our world. We invited the producers to see first-hand the research we were conducting to help solve the recycling issues in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project was just one of many sustainability projects we at PLASTICS help lead. The facility was briefly included. Sadly, it was implied that this project will fail just as a similar efforts did 25 years ago. What was omitted were the improvements in technology that would increase material recovery or landfill diversion by more than 50,000 tons per year, equivalent to 2,500 semi-trailer truckloads of recovered materials bound for recycling facilities.”

Radoszewski took issue with the interviews of Freeman and Thomas, “two former Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) employees [that] do not reflect the position and attitude of PLASTICS and the plastics industry. At PLASTICS, we are focused on innovation and solving our recycling challenges. Innovation is the hallmark of our industry. We can’t speak for anyone who’s no longer a part of our organization, or no longer a part of the industry. But today we know that the plastics industry has nothing to hide, nor does PLASTICS.” 

We all know the problems of plastic waste that get into the environment through the carelessness of people who mishandle what are perceived to be recyclable materials. Now it’s time for NPR and Frontline to document the solutions.

If you watched the show, tell us what you think by leaving a comment and take part in our Quick Poll on the home page.

For more information on the latest in advanced recycling technology, see the series of articles that will run in PlasticsToday later this month leading up to Earth Day on April 22.

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