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Debunking the ‘Fraud of Plastic Recycling’

In a recent report, the Center for Climate Integrity conveniently ignores the single-most important factor driving demand for recycled plastics — the price of oil.

John Spevacek

February 20, 2024

3 Min Read
fact check key on computer keyboard
Kagenmi/iStock via Getty Images

The Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) released a report last week, "The Fraud of Plastic Recycling," that is making a minor splash by attacking "the plastics industry" for knowing that hardly any plastics can be recycled (or similar such nonsense).

I dug the report out, and just inside the front cover it explains that the CCI "empowers communities and elected officials with the knowledge and tools they need to hold oil and gas corporations accountable for the massive costs of climate change." In other words, the oil companies are the answer. But what’s the question? This mission statement makes it so much easier to see the bias going in, rather than having to try and infer it.

The report goes on for 68 pages, but the main point is that because many plastics aren’t being recycled, they "cannot be recycled" or are "impossible to recycle." The CCI needs to look up the words "cannot" and "impossible." They don’t mean what it thinks they mean. A lack of markets is entirely different than lacking the technology.

The great plastics crime wave

The markets for recycled plastics are largely influenced by a single factor — the price of virgin resin (which correlates to the price of oil). When oil prices are high, recycled resin becomes attractive and it gets used. Demand can become so high that people are willing to go to criminal lengths to get it. Back in 2011 to 2013 when a barrel of oil went for around $110, Los Angeles had such a crime wave of people stealing plastic objects just to regrind and sell them that the police established a five-person task force to focus on such crimes. (Were they booked for grand theft plastics? Or open container violations?)

Somehow the correlation to oil prices was left out of the report. That is understandable as anyone advocating for higher oil prices will not make a lot of friends.

A further example of having the bias-blinders firmly attached is on page three, which states that green PET bottles cannot be recycled with clear PET bottles. True, very true. But that is also equally true for one of the highly praised recycling success stories — glass. Green glass bottles can be very difficult to recycle. Because of this, there isn’t demand for green bottles outside of the wine industry (and small portions of the beer industry). If you don’t live near a wine-producing area, the demand for green glass is zero (and shipping heavy glass to areas with demand is not cost effective).

To maintain the integrity of its message, the CCI should then point out that glass cannot be recycled (or maybe that it is impossible to recycle?). Similarly, its recycled argument about polymer degradation with each processing cycle needs to be applied to the paper industry, too. That won’t happen, however, as its mission statement is that big oil is the answer. And so, again, we must ask: What’s the question?

Report won’t help to increase recycling rates

Clearly plastics are not being recycled as much as other materials, but it’s not because of some vast conspiracy. Just like for all recycling, market demand is the driver. Consumers are not opposed to recycling and will actively participate, but reports like this will not increase recycling rates at all. They will only lead to cynicism followed by lower recycling rates. I can’t imagine this would be the aim of the CCI and its report, but it could be a possible outcome.

One last thought: What exactly is "climate integrity"? Is our climate somehow open to bribery, conflicts of interest, or other amoral behavior? I am seriously confused.

About the Author(s)

John Spevacek

Born and raised in Minnesota, John Spevacek earned a B.ChE. from the University of Minnesota (Twin Cities) and a PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois (Urbana). He worked in the plastics industry for 25 years for several companies, large and small, in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

He began teaching so that he could share his experiences and knowledge with others. He and his wife became fed up with Minnesota winters and moved south shortly after this career change. Spevacek currently is an assistant professor of engineering at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, NC.

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