Climate activists target plastics industry with ‘recycling’ theory

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Appeared in True North, May 8,2024
Climate activists target plastics industry with ‘recycling’ theory

A new battle front has formed in the war on plastics, and it’s a doozy. An activist group called the Center for Climate Integrity (CCI) has issued a report that essentially declares plastic recycling a scam, and more than that, a scam ginned up with malice aforethought by the plastics industry and its petroleum industry material suppliers.

The report is already being used as a pretext to engage in lawfare against the plastics industry by groups who see large dollar signs and industrialist scalps to claim if they can convince jurors of such malfeasance.

Of course, the war on plastics is not a just war; there is no casus belli. Plastics are not a significant risk to human health or environmental sustainability. In fact, plastics contribute to human flourishing in uncountable ways. We literally would have only a tiny fraction of modern health-care technologies, medicines or other life-enhancing technologies without plastics.

To the extent that plastics pose an environmental hazard, that comes down to how plastic wastes are managed, and that failure is largely a government failure as waste-management is a highly regulated activity. While the people who pick up trash may be private-sector workers, governments say where the trash goes.

The CCI report actually reveals this truth—in the 1960s and 1970s when it became clear plastic waste was being dumped into the open environment the plastics industry offered its ideal solution, which was incineration and landfilling. But according to the CCI report, “Neither landfilling nor incineration sufficiently assuaged public concerns or regulatory pressure, and the industry again found itself facing proposed bans on single-use plastics in the mid-1980s.”

Indeed, it wasn’t until the 1980s, after being refused its preferred solution pathway, the plastics industry suggested recycling as an alternative. But eventually, the industry wished a return to incineration but was again rebuffed, by “the public”—that is, environmental groups like CCI and government regulators. These groups still oppose more advanced forms of plastic incineration or processing into fuels that can be used for energy production, and insist only non-profitable recycling or bans of plastic products are acceptable solutions to the plastic waste problem.

Did the executives, chemists and engineers in the plastics industry know recycling would work when they proposed it as a solution? Probably not. They would have known research does not produce solutions on demand. Were they insincere or fraudulent in suggesting the possibility? It seems unlikely. The petrochemical sector has an amazing history of developing revolutionary products and processes that have solved environmental impacts of their product’s creation. They were perhaps overly confident recycling could be made to work, but that’s hardly a crime.

Were industry execs acting immorally, with malice-aforethought? Again, it seems unlikely. The captains of industry are generally capitalists who likely believe (as capitalists generally do) that manufacturing and producing goods people want to buy is not only a moral act but a moral imperative. Staying in business, bringing in wages and earnings for themselves, their workers, their shareholders, and selling people products that they think will improve their lives is also a moral act and imperative. And so, suggesting a recycling solution for plastic waste to regulators—who were poised to extinguish their industry—would also have likely been seen as a moral pursuit by the industry.

Does the world have a problem with plastic waste? Yes. Far too much plastic waste is released into the global environment. But the cause of the problem is not wild conspiracy theories of industry malfeasance and collusion, nor failures to advance recycling, it’s government mismanagement of waste disposal, primarily in less developed countries that choose “dump it in the rivers” over spending money to either incinerate or safely landfill plastic waste.

That practice is a rightful target for fury, not the people who tried to solve the problem within the constraints imposed by governments and environmental activists.

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