How Big Oil and Big Soda kept a global environmental calamity a secret for decades
ByTIM DICKINSONMARCH 3, 2020
Every human on Earth is ingesting nearly 2,000 particles of plastic a week. These tiny pieces enter our unwitting bodies from tap water, food, and even the air, according to an alarming academic study sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, dosing us with five grams of plastics, many cut with chemicals linked to cancers, hormone disruption, and developmental delays. Since the paper’s publication last year, Sen. Tom Udall, a plain-spoken New Mexico Democrat with a fondness for white cowboy hats and turquoise bolo ties, has been trumpeting the risk: “We are consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic each week,” Udall says. At events with constituents, he will brandish a Visa from his wallet and declare, “You’re eating this, folks!”
With new legislation, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020, Udall is attempting to marshal Washington into a confrontation with the plastics industry, and to force companies that profit from plastics to take accountability for the waste they create. Unveiled in February, the bill would ban many single-use plastics and force corporations to finance “end of life” programs to keep plastic out of the environment. “We’re going back to that principle,” the senator tells Rolling Stone. “The polluter pays.”
The battle pits Udall and his allies in Congress against some of the most powerful corporate interests on the planet, including the oil majors and chemical giants that produce the building blocks for our modern plastic world — think Exxon, Dow, and Shell — and consumer giants like Coca-Cola, Nestlé, and Unilever that package their products in the stuff. Big Plastic isn’t a single entity. It’s more like a corporate supergroup: Big Oil meets Big Soda — with a puff of Big Tobacco, responsible for trillions of plastic cigarette butts in the environment every year. And it combines the lobbying and public-relations might of all three.
Americans have occasionally crusaded against “problem plastics” — scapegoating packing peanuts, grocery bags, or drinking straws for the sins of our unsustainable consumer economy. We’ve been slow to recognize that we’re actually in the midst of a plastic pandemic. Over the past 70 years, we’ve gotten hooked on disposable goods and packaging — as plastics became the lifeblood of an American culture of speed, convenience, and disposability that’s conquered the globe. Plastic contains our hot coffee and frozen dinners. It is the material of childhood, from Pampers to Playmobil to PlayStation 4. It cloaks our e-commerce purchases and is woven into our sneakers, fast fashion, and business fleece. Humans are now using a million plastic bottles a minute, and 500 billion plastic bags a year — including those we use to bag up our plastic-laden trash.
But the world’s plastic waste is not so easily contained. Massive quantities of this forever material are spilling into the oceans — the equivalent of a dump-truck load every minute. Plastic is also fouling our mountains, our farmland, and spiraling into an unmitigatable environmental disaster. John Hocevar is a marine biologist who leads the Oceans Campaign for Greenpeace, and spearheaded the group’s response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Increasingly, his work has centered on plastics. “This is a much bigger problem than ‘just’ an ocean issue, or even a pollution issue,” he says. “We’ve found plastic everywhere we’ve ever looked. It’s in the Arctic and the Antarctic and in the middle of the Pacific. It’s in the Pyrenees and in the Rockies. It’s settling out of the air. It’s raining down on us.”
More than half the plastic now on Earth has been created since 2002, and plastic pollution is on pace to double by 2030. At its root, the global plastics crisis is a product of our addiction to fossil fuels. The private profit and public harm of the oil industry is well understood: Oil is refined and distributed to consumers, who benefit from gasoline’s short, useful lifespan in a combustion engine, leaving behind atmospheric pollution for generations. But this same pattern — and this same tragedy of the commons — is playing out with another gift of the oil-and-gas giants, whose drilling draws up the petroleum precursors for plastics. These are refined in industrial complexes and manufactured into bottles, bags, containers, textiles, and toys for consumers who benefit from their transient use — before throwing them away.
“Plastics are just a way of making things out of fossil fuels,” says Jim Puckett, executive director of the Basel Action Network. BAN is devoted to enforcement of the Basel Convention, an international treaty that blocks the developed world from dumping hazardous wastes on the developing world, and was recently expanded, effective next year, to include plastics. For Americans who religiously sort their recycling, it’s upsetting to hear about plastic being lumped in with toxic waste. But the poisonous parallel is apt. When it comes to plastic, recycling is a misnomer. “They really sold people on the idea that plastics can be recycled because there’s a fraction of them that are,” says Puckett. “It’s fraudulent. When you drill down into plastics recycling, you realize it’s a myth.”
Since 1950, the world has created 6.3 trillion kilograms of plastic waste — and 91 percent has never been recycled even once, according to a landmark 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances. Unlike aluminum, which can be recycled again and again, plastic degrades in reprocessing, and is almost never recycled more than once. A plastic soda bottle, for example, might get downcycled into a carpet. Modern technology has hardly improved things: Of the 78 billion kilograms of plastic packaging materials produced in 2013, only 14 percent were even collected for recycling, and just two percent were effectively recycled to compete with virgin plastic. “Recycling delays, rather than avoids, final disposal,” the Science authors write. And most plastics persist for centuries.Now you can mix & match on Fios.Get Internet & TV your way.Ad by Verizon Fios See More
As the globalized economy boomed, the toxic reality was hidden overseas. Plastics tossed out here were picked over at domestic recycling facilities, which targeted easier-to-sort-and-reprocess clear plastic bottles, milk jugs, and detergent containers. The leftovers were tied up in dirty bales and shipped to Asia. “China took them because there was some high value of material in there,” a former Waste Management executive tells Rolling Stone. Oftentimes, he says, Chinese recyclers “would dump those bales into the river to separate the materials and pick the better stuff out. And then they simply let the rest just go downstream.” The target plastics weren’t recycled in state-of-the-art facilities, rather shredded and melted down in rudimentary factories — often staffed by whole families, children included — eking out a toxic living amid mountains of imported trash.
Seeing political danger in its growing pollution crisis, China blocked most plastic imports in 2018, and this “National Sword” policy roiled international recycling markets. Attempts to re-create the China model in less authoritarian economies of Southeast Asia have backfired in pollution and protest — pulling back the curtain on what one waste executive describes to Rolling Stone as “our dirty little secret”: Americans who believed they were diverting plastic from the trash were, ironically, fueling a waste crisis half a world away. “It is easy to find American and European packaging polluting the countryside of Southeast Asia,” states a 2019 report from the Break Free From Plastics coalition, which coordinates an annual global audit of plastic waste. “When people in the global north throw something ‘away,’ much of it ends up in the global south because there is no such thing as ‘away.’”
The worst of our global plastics crisis is borne by the oceans. Roughly 8 billion kilograms of plastics enter the world’s waters every year, and the problem is most acute in emerging coastal economies. The volume entering oceans can be hard to comprehend, admits Jenna Jambeck, an engineering professor at the University of Georgia who has published pathbreaking science that quantifies plastic “leakage” to the oceans. “It’s equal to five grocery-size bags full of plastic for every foot of coastline in the world,” she says. “If you imagine us all standing, hand-to-hand, covering the coastline of the entire world, this is what’s in front of each one of us.”
Marine plastics picked up by the currents collect in massive ocean “gyres” — the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now twice the size of Texas. These are swirling petrochemical spills, but unlike crude oil, the long molecular chains in plastics don’t exist in nature and don’t meaningfully biodegrade. “The same properties that make plastics so versatile,” the Science Advances authors, including Jambeck, write, “make these materials difficult or impossible for nature to assimilate.” Instead, bulk plastics wear down into microplastics — a category for particles smaller than 5 millimeters, or roughly the width of your pinkie fingernail — deteriorating further into nanoplastic particles.
In the open water, plastics are consumed by fish, seabirds, and mammals — which are washing up dead in harrowing numbers. Last year, whales in Italy and the Philippines died just weeks apart, their stomachs packed with indigestible plastic bags. In December, a sperm whale washed ashore in Scotland with more than 200 pounds of plastic in its gut. The pollution visible on the ocean surface represents just one percent of what humans have dumped into the oceans. The rest lies beneath, including seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench, where researchers have spotted plastic bags and measured microplastics at concentrations of 2,000 parts per liter. Without dramatic change, the amount of plastics entering the oceans every year, already intolerable, is projected to more than double by 2025.
Cattle grazing in Indonesia. For decades, America has exported plastic waste. “Our dirty little secret,” one executive calls it. Photo credit: Zikri Maulana/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
The story on dry land is hardly more comforting. Plastics are widely used in agriculture and “microplastic pollution is somewhere between four and 23 times higher in the soil than in the sea,” says Lili Fuhr, editor of Plastic Atlas, which documents the reach of global plastic pollution. Microplastics, thought to be carried by the winds, have been found in pristine terrestrial environments, including the polar ice caps. In Colorado, plastic fibers have been discovered in precipitation. “It’s in the rain, it’s in the snow,” lamented United States Geological Survey researcher Greg Wetherbee. “It’s a part of our environment now.” Even landfills may be creating long-term hazards. A 2019 study in Water Research found microplastic contamination as high as 24 parts per liter in landfill runoff, offering “preliminary evidence…that landfill isn’t the final sink of plastics,” the researchers wrote, “but a potential source of microplastics.”
This pollution is planetwide, impossible to fully remediate, and threatens to disrupt natural systems — including those that allow the oceans to remove carbon from the atmosphere. “Humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale,” write the researchers in Science Advances, “in which billions of metric tons of material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet.”
We are all guinea pigs in this experiment, as plastics accumulate in the food web, appearing in seafood, table salt, and ironically even in bottled water. Many plastics are mixed with a toxic brew of colorants, flame retardants, and plasticizers. Joe Vaillancourt is the CEO of a company that refines waste plastic into fuel — a process that requires removing such contaminants from curbside recycling. “In one little 10-pound batch,” he says, “we found a thousand different chemicals.” Some of these additives are linked to cancer and severe health problems. As plastics break down over time, they can also absorb toxins from the environment, including PCBs.
The threat to human health is complex and poorly understood. “There are a lot more questions than answers at this point,” says Mark Hahn, a toxicologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who studies microplastics. Some plastic likely passes through the human gut like so much sand, he says. But scientists have found that tiny plastic particles can insinuate themselves into the bloodstream of mussels and the organs of fish. Airborne nanoplastics can also be inhaled into the lungs. “Are they lodging somewhere and physically blocking something, or causing an inflammatory reaction,” Hahn asks, “or are they carrying their additives and contaminants and delivering them somewhere — you know, to the brain?” Hahn, a sober and skeptical scientist, is concerned about the rising tide of plastic in the environment. “If there is a problem now,” he says, “it’s only going to get worse.”
The story of how we got into this fix is short, modern — and American as hell. In the late 1860s, a bush-bearded inventor in New York sought to claim a $10,000 prize by developing an alternative to ivory. With a primitive polymer, John Wesley Hyatt created — and later peddled to the consuming public — plastic billiard balls, piano keys, and false teeth.Now you can mix & match on Fios.Get Internet & TV your way.Ad by Verizon Fios See More
Plastics were industrialized in the early 1900s by Leo Baekeland, a Belgian immigrant whose Bakelite polymer withstood high temperatures and insulated against electricity. Touted as “the material of a thousand uses” — its logo a “B” floating above the mathematical symbol for infinity — Bakelite became integral to the automotive and electric industries, as well as to consumer goods like dominoes, telephone receivers, and 78 rpm records.
Plastics wove themselves deeper into American life with the invention of nylon in the 1930s. And their versatility made them indispensable to the military in World War II, featuring in parachutes, tires, and Plexiglas windows. Plastics boomed as a hallmark of America’s postwar consumer culture, yet this material of abundance also became a marker of soulless excess that horrified Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate when buttonholed about his future career prospects at a party — and pitched on “Plastics…There’s a great future in plastics.”
The virtues of plastic are as real now as they were then. “Plastic allows us to do more with less,” insists Steve Russell, vice president of the Plastics Division at the American Chemistry Council, which represents petrochemical companies. (Russell announced his retirement in early 2020.) “Whether it’s to make cars lighter so they use less energy or buildings more efficient. They allow us to deliver a safe and sanitary drinking water through plastic pipes that don’t corrode.” Pointing to the pervasive use of plastics in medicine, he highlights their peerless “benefits of hygiene and health and safety.”
Yet beyond this slate of essential, durable, or technically demanding cases, plastic has also twinned itself to modern throwaway culture. As much as 40 percent of plastics produced today go into packaging. The Graduate debuted in 1967, and that era marks a pivot point for the industry. At the First National Conference of Packaging Wastes in 1969, Dow Chemical’s chief environmental manager presented a paper on the explosive growth of single-use plastics in “cafeterias…universities, hospitals, airlines, restaurants, etc.” While praising the performance of these “durable materials that might conceivably last forever,” he sounded an alarm about “disposal problems.” He foresaw a coming deluge of plastic waste and called out the industry for turning a blind eye — “and there are those who have elected to do just that.” He insisted that incineration was the “ultimate solution,” but confessed, “It’s going to cost somebody a lot of money.”
Far from financing a solution for plastic waste, the broader corporate response was to fund public relations blaming consumers for the pollution instead. Keep America Beautiful — a nonprofit quietly funded by industry — began airing famous public-service announcements in 1971 of a crying “Indian” (actually a spaghetti-Western star) paddling through waters strewn with refuse like styrofoam cups, with the tag line “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
In fact, KAB had been founded to head off state bans on single-use packaging, according to notes reviewed by Rolling Stone. And industry boosters from the era were proclaiming the end of refillable beer and soda bottles as a “growth frontier” because every reusable bottle taken out of circulation “means the sale of 20 one-way containers.” By 1978, Coca-Cola adopted its first plastic soda bottle — sparking a shift that has conquered the planet. Four decades later, the world is using half a trillion plastic bottles a year.
To help keep pollution out of sight, the top companies of Big Plastic have continued to fund KAB, which organizes volunteer labor to pick up trash on land, as well as the Ocean Conservancy, which sponsors volunteer international coastal cleanups. Since 2017, the top 10 categories of trash collected in the beach cleanups has been made of one material: plastic.
Ocean Conservancy says it is dedicated to “ending the flow of trash at the source,” but critics accuse the group of a sin of omission. The cleanups tally waste down to the last plastic bottle (1,754,908 in the most recent effort), but don’t link the waste to the corporations that produced it. Only in recent years has Break Free From Plastics launched a competing network of cleanups, recording the branding they discover. In 2019, its audit called out a trio of the world’s richest consumer brands as the top plastic polluters: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestlé. “I was personally saddened by it,” says Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s chief sustainability officer, of the company’s number-one ranking. “We don’t want to be that number.”
Both KAB and Ocean Conservancy insist their work is not compromised by corporate funding. A representative for KAB — whose directors include executives from Keurig, Dr. Pepper, Mars Wrigley, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé Waters, Dow, Philip Morris, and the American Chemistry Council — rejects the “narrative” that KAB is a corporate front group: “We’re not. We’re an independent organization.” A vice president at Ocean Conservancy — which placed executives from Coca-Cola, Dow, and the American Chemistry Council on the steering committee of a recent report on ocean plastics — tells Rolling Stone that the problems of plastic waste are so systemic and complex that “we need everyone — including corporations — at the table.”
I’m peering down from a crane operator’s chair on the third floor of a waste-to-energy facility — into what looks like a real-life version of the trash compactor in the Death Star.
Far below lies a rectangular pit, 35 feet deep, where municipal garbage trucks dump their loads. The trash there awaits “the claw” — a 7,500-pound grapple with six retractable steel talons that scoops up to two-and-a-half tons of garbage on every lift. The operator next to me hoists trash out of the pit, releasing it onto a mountainous mixing pile, “fluffing” the waste to create a blend that will burn evenly. With each pass, the grapple pops Glad bags like pustules of trash, leaving behind ragged streamers of plastic.
The top alternative to burying plastic in a landfill is not recycling. It’s fire. Over the past six decades, far more plastic has been incinerated than collected for reuse. This incinerator, outside of Oregon’s capital, Salem, is operated by Covanta, which runs similar waste-to-energy plants on the East Coast that burn trash for New York and Philadelphia. For months after China roiled recycling markets in 2018, Philadelphia tasked Covanta with burning half the city’s “recycling” that had nowhere else to go.
Roughly a third of the trash is plastic. Households served by this plant have recently been instructed to toss out hard-to-recycle plastics (yogurt containers, beer cups — anything with a recycling number higher than 2), and those items now come here to burn. When the operator is satisfied with the mix, he hoists a grapple load to a height of 90 feet and dumps it into the hopper — fueling the incinerator that generates electricity for the local grid. The extreme temperature of the burner, 2,000 degrees, creates a near-complete combustion that neutralizes most toxic compounds in plastic. But incineration returns plastic to its origins as a fossil fuel, creating carbon pollution that escapes through a candy-striped smokestack, in a white wisp that’s visible for miles.
The greenhouse-gas profile of plastics is simply unsustainable. As the world begins to wean itself off of fossil fuel for transportation, Big Oil giants from Texas to Saudi Arabia are turning to plastic to support future growth. The International Energy Agency predicts that “oil demand related to plastic consumption overtakes that for road-passenger transport by 2050,” and its top executive warns plastics are “one of the key blind spots in the global energy debate.”
The industry is counting on a tidal wave of new demand from emerging economies. A 2018 IEA report underscores that advanced economies use up to 20 times more plastic per capita than consumers do in India or Indonesia. And it warns that increased recycling and single-use bans in places like Europe and Japan “will be far outweighed by developing economies sharply increasing their shares of plastic consumption (as well as its disposal).”
Global plastics production and incineration currently creates the CO2 pollution of 189 coal plants. By 2050, that’s expected to more than triple, to the equivalent of 615 coal plants. At that rate, plastics would hog about 15 percent of the world’s remaining “carbon budget,” or what can be emitted without crossing the 2-degrees Celsius threshold in global temperature rise that scientists warn can trigger calamity.
A seabird suffocated by plastic. The oceans have suffered the worst pollution, with plastic found seven miles deep in the Mariana Trench. Photo credit: Krzysztof Bargiel/Shutterstock
The plastic industry’s damage to the planet is vast, but not immeasurable. In fact, the industry has published a detailed accounting that reveals its pollution is on pace to cause trillions in environmental harm by midcentury.
The American Chemistry Council is a trade group that represents the large oil and petrochemical companies that produce plastic resins — the back end of Big Plastic. In 2016, the ACC commissioned a study by the consultancy Trucost — “the world’s leading experts in quantifying and valuing the environmental impacts” from industry. The ACC paid for the study to demonstrate that plastics are not easily replaceable, and that many common substitutes — particularly glass — carry higher environmental costs when factoring in weight for transportation.
The Trucost finding that the ACC does not trumpet? “The environmental cost to society of consumer plastic products and packaging was over $139 billion in 2015,” the report reveals. Without a dramatic change in course, Trucost predicts, that annual figure will soar to “$209 billion by 2025.”
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Steve Russell, the ACC’s vice president for plastics, acknowledged that $139 billion “is a big number.” An attorney, Russell has an affect more folksy than slick. But that’s far from straightforward. The giant sum, he says, is “not a literal debt on the balance sheet.” But that is precisely the point. Trucost measured externalities — or the costs that companies don’t have to pay for, but instead slough off on society — including those created by “greenhouse-gas emissions; air pollution; land and water pollution; water depletion; [and] ocean impacts.”
Trucost warns that the business model of the plastics industry would be upended if new government regulations, or consumer backlash, forced it to “internalize” and pay for these costs — a development that would pose “a serious risk to the future profitability of the plastics industry.”
Much of the world is waking up to the plastics crisis. As China has shut its doors to the global plastic-waste trade, the European Union, Canada, and India are stepping up bans on single-use plastics like cutlery, plates, straws, and ear swabs. “How do you explain dead whales washing up on beaches across the world, their stomachs jam packed with plastic bags?” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked, introducing his country’s initiative. “As a dad, it is tough trying to explain this stuff to my kids.”
But under President Trump, the United States is lurching in the opposite direction, promoting the plastic industry’s aggressive expansion. “It’s war,” says Puckett of BAN, “between policies that are totally at odds with each other — of making more plastics and banning plastic.”
American fracking is literally fueling the global surge in plastics. The glut of cheap natural gas here has sparked an explosion in new plastics infrastructure. Since 2010, according to the ACC, U.S. companies have ramped up “334 chemical and plastics projects cumulatively valued at $204 billion.” Europe has built new plastics plants fed by fracked U.S. exports. Environmentalists warn that these facilities will lock in demand for fossil-fuel consumption for a generation.
Trump is an unabashed booster of plastics — in keeping with his service to the fossil-fuel industry. The former CEO of Dow led Trump’s manufacturing council. And last July, the president visited a new Shell plastics complex outside Pittsburgh. “This facility will transform abundant natural gas — and we have a lot of it — fracked from Pennsylvania wells into plastic,” Trump said. That material, he boasted, would be embossed with “that very beautiful phrase: ‘Made in the USA.’”
With the president championing its interests in Washington — and even triggering the libs with Trump 2020 campaign-branded plastic straws — the plastics industry is working to undermine grassroots activism in cities and states across the country.
The Plastics Industry Association, or PLASTICS, is a top trade group headquartered on K Street in Washington, D.C. Hiding its handiwork inside a nesting doll of front groups, PLASTICS has worked to thwart state and municipal bans on single-use plastics. PLASTICS has gotten an assist from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which pushes right-wing state legislatures to pass nearly identical bills. In 2013, the plastic trade group wrote a pitch to ALEC members, arguing a ban on plastic “results in the picking of winners and losers in a ‘not-so-free’ marketplace.” By 2015, ALEC began advocating state laws best known for “banning bans” on plastic bags, but which are often far more sweeping, prohibiting limits on styrofoam and “auxiliary containers” — a catchall term for to-go packaging.
PLASTICS obscures its involvement in these state fights through a “special purpose” front group called the Progressive Bag Alliance, which rebranded in January as the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. The organization runs public relations through another front group, Bag the Ban, which touts plastic as “the most environmentally friendly option at the checkout.” (The bag alliance claims it is self-funding, but PLASTICS employs its director, per IRS filings, and the groups share offices and overhead.)
Plastic bags get caught in trees and clog gutters, and for cities they’re an obvious target for regulation. “They’re a visible reminder of consumer single-use culture, and something that people feel like they can do something about,” says Jennie Romer, an environmental lawyer who built PlasticBagLaws.org and now directs plastic-pollution projects for Surfrider. Banning bags is often the first step in a radicalizing journey, says Romer, as consumers become vigilant about the harms of single-use plastics more broadly. “Plastic-bag laws have been a gateway to other laws on plastics,” she says. San Jose, for example, passed a 2011 ban on bags that spawned a statewide California ban, later defended by voters in a 2016 referendum the Bag Alliance spent more than $6 million to put on the ballot. Last year, California nearly passed a ban on single-use plastics. “I don’t think we get there,” Romer says, “unless we can start with the plastic bags.”
The success of blue states, from Hawaii to New York, in banning plastic bags has been countered by the industry-led push. PLASTICS says it has parted ways with ALEC, but some 15 red states now have laws pre-empting local plastic bans, with Oklahoma, North Dakota, and Tennessee joining the pack in 2019. (ALEC did not respond to questions from Rolling Stone.)
For now, the state bans on bans are holding up in court. The city of Coral Gables, adjacent to Miami, has seen a pair of ordinances struck down under Florida’s plastics pre-emption law, and Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli is furious. “We have 200 miles of coastline,” he tells Rolling Stone. “We banned plastic bags. We also banned styrofoam. We’re going onto plastic straws. It’s vital for us to prevail on these in order to preserve our environment.” Coral Gables is taking the fight to the state Supreme Court.
Florida’s powerful Retail Federation insists it shouldn’t have to contend with a patchwork of local regulations. But Romer sees a darker motivation at play. “It’s hard to change a statewide law,” she says, “if you don’t have the ability to work locally.” By striking in statehouses, she adds, “the industry is able to kill the grassroots movements.”
As the global plastics crisis grows — and photos of albatross chicks decomposing around the indigestible plastic waste that killed them go viral — the industry is quietly agonizing over backlash from the metal-straw and Hydroflask-toting members of Generation Z. “The [plastic] water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” a senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters confessed at a conference last year. “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.”
In contrast to climate change, the plastics crisis has not been met with corporate denial. The companies of Big Plastic are instead seeking to convince consumers and regulators that — despite having unleashed this torrent of pollution on the planet — they can be trusted to pioneer solutions that will make plastic use sustainable. They’re touting a “circular economy,” in which used plastic doesn’t become waste but, instead, a feedstock for new products. A cynic might translate the concept into: Recycling, but for real this time. “There are a lot of different corporate commitments,” says Shilpi Chhotray, a leader of the Break Free From Plastics movement. While some show promise, others “are just greenwashing,” she insists, with the intent of giving the industry cover for its true aim: “growth.”
There’s a marked split in the seriousness of the industry response between the back-end producers of plastics and the consumer brands closest to the backlash. On the producer side, the American Chemistry Council has taken on a global role in crisis management. It has adopted voluntary commitments that give its members decades to change habits. ACC members have pledged to make all plastic packaging “recyclable or recoverable” by 2030, aiming for this material to be “reused, recycled, or recovered” in practice by 2040. “They’re very ambitious,” the ACC’s Russell insisted of the goals. “There was a lot of heartburn in articulating them, because we didn’t know that we could go that quickly.”
Yet even as it promotes “the drive toward a circular economy,” the ACC is also championing technology that turns waste-plastic back into fossil fuels, including diesel. The ACC calls this “advanced recycling.” Puckett, the BAN chief, calls that malarkey: “They’re going to try and market burning plastic as some kind of green coal,” he warns.
The ACC also helped launch the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Its members are primarily producers — ExxonMobil, Shell, Dow, Total, BASF — but also include Procter & Gamble. Like many consumer brands, P&G is targeting emerging economies by selling single-serve plastic packets of soaps and detergents. These “sachets” are unrecyclable and a top form of trash in plastic waste in Asia. Alliance members are vowing to spend $1.5 billion over five years to “minimize and manage plastic waste…to keep it out of the environment.” Large on its face, this $1.5 billion commitment represents a fraction of the damage the industry is causing to the oceans in a single year — $13 billion, per the United Nations. And a pilot project to keep plastics out of the Ganges relies in part on distributing equipment to turn waste into fuel. No one from the Alliance would speak to Rolling Stone. But the ACC’s Russell admitted that “$1.5 billion is not enough,” emphasizing, “It’s a start. It’s not the end.”
A more ambitious initiative comes from the consumer-facing brands of Big Plastic. The New Plastic Economy is run through the London-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation and supported by corporate giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Unilever, as well as the U.N. Environmental Program. Remarkably, the project has gotten plastic-dependent companies to reveal for the first time just how much they use each year. The tallies are staggering, led by Coca-Cola at 3 billion kilograms, PepsiCo at 2.3 billion, Nestlé at 1.7 billion, and Unilever at 700 million.
The New Plastic Economy’s goals include eliminating some problem plastics, committing to a 2025 “ambition level” of 100 percent “reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging.” Sander Defruyt, the project’s leader, is quick to call bullshit on plastics-to-fuel initiatives — “that’s not recycling,” he says, “and it is not part of a circular economy” — and admits that project members have shown “an enormous lack of progress” on pioneering essential models for reuse. He insists the world cannot recycle its way out of this problem. The circular economy is “not about keeping today’s system and increasing the recycling rate,” he says. “It’s about fundamentally changing the system.”
No company stands astride the currents of the global plastic crisis quite like Coca-Cola. The company’s plastic dependence is stark. It produced 117 billion plastic bottles in 2018, according to its sustainability report. The company boasts a 52 percent recycling rate for these bottles — far above average. But the same math indicates that more than 56 billion of its bottles became waste. That’s roughly seven containers for every human on the planet.
Coca-Cola recently ended its membership in the Plastics Industry Association — “our values did not align,” Perez, the company’s chief sustainability officer, tells Rolling Stone. It has also committed to its own World Without Waste initiative, vowing to “collect and recycle the equivalent of every bottle or can it sells globally” by 2030.
Cans and bottles collected by street canners are sorted and bagged, awaiting pick up, at a recycling cooperative in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Photo credit: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/Getty Images
Perez’s brief is expansive: She also serves as the company’s chief of communications, public affairs, and marketing assets. Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives likewise seem nested within a marketing context. In a recent investor presentation, the company was pressed on whether young people adopting refillable flasks was a threat to the bottom line: “What’s interesting,” Perez replied, “is the more educated they become around the circular economy and turning it into something else, the more receptive they become” to plastic.
Coca-Cola deflected questions about switching to a material like aluminum that has more intrinsic value and is less hazardous as waste. Perez highlights, instead, the company’s efforts to make its plastic bottles lighter and easier to recycle. Leaving open that the “bottle of the future” might be made of a “more responsible” material, Perez insists that plastic is “a viable package as long as we get to the circular economy.” But getting there, she adds, will take coordinated global action. “We’re going to act, and we’re going to ask others to join us. We need everyone to play the part,” she insists, “because time is running out.”
Across the plastics industry, executives buzz about the potential of “chemical recycling” — a process that breaks down plastic to its molecular components, which can then be reprocessed to make like-new plastic. “We could truly keep all of these materials in circularity without any degradation,” Kim Holmes, the vice president of sustainability for PLASTICS, tells me. “I like to think of it as getting us to that infinite polymer state.”
To assess the viability of the technology, I visit an Oregon company called Agilyx, which sells itself as providing “the world’s only circular-economy solution for plastics.” As I pull into the parking lot, in an industrial zone outside Portland city limits, I encounter a middle-aged man unloading long styrofoam blocks, nearly as tall as he is, from his van into a grubby dumpster marked “Public Polystyrene Drop Off.”
Agilyx recycles that notorious eco-villain, styrofoam. The feedstocks here include coolers from transporting frozen fish, foam packaging for TVs, and styrofoam bricks used by the timber industry to grow seedlings for replanting. On the day of my visit, these weathered bricks are piled some 20 feet high inside the company’s warehouse. “We don’t need to preprocess it,” says CEO Joe Vaillancourt. “We don’t need it cleaned. We’re going right back to the molecule.”
The process begins by crushing styrofoam and breaking it into pebbles that resemble quartz. This material is mixed with shredded pieces of unfoamed polystyrene — material used to make red Solo cups. The mix travels up a conveyor belt and gets dumped into a reactor that turns the plastic into a gas, unzipping the plastic polymer to produce a styrene oil that’s cooled and pumped into black barrels for shipment back to a styrofoam manufacturer.
The factory handles 10 tons of material a day. But it’s not waste-free. The reactor spits out a heavy, black-carbon residue from the contaminants in the plastic, and produces a propane-like waste gas that’s flared into the atmosphere. The gasification process — known as pyrolysis — is also energy-intensive, relying on heat and high pressure. But Agilyx insists its product creates 70 percent less greenhouse pollution than starting with fossil fuels.Now you can mix & match on Fios.Get Internet & TV your way.Ad by Verizon Fios See More
Vaillancourt pitches chemical recycling as environmental-harm reduction. Those who dream of a plastic-free world are doing just that, dreaming: “There are 7 billion people in the world whose daily lives increasingly depend on it,” he says. “It won’t go away.” The world is using nearly 400 billion kilograms of plastics a year — and demand is growing. “You can ban single-use all you want,” he says. “It’s really not going to get rid of the amount of plastics appreciably.”
Chemical recycling is in its infancy. And many environmentalists dismiss it as a “distraction” that has yet to prove itself as anything other than an expensive niche technology — joining bioplastics and compostable alternatives that have long been hyped as offering a path to sustainability, but failed to claim any real market share. Coca-Cola recently touted a batch of soda bottles made with chemically recycled waste from the sea. But it made just 300 of the containers, underscoring questions of cost and scalability.
Villaincourt admits that “the existing waste and recycling industries have never been set up” to supply companies like his, and that many companies can make more money landfilling waste plastic. “For this to really scale very large,” he says, will require disruption — including from the government. “Some companies are just gonna wait till it’s legislated,” he says. “Because of the profit motive, there’s no reason to change.”
The industry’s voluntary actions to curb plastic pollution are driven by two clear motives: One is protecting the environment, the other is protecting profits from regulation. “None of us want to live in a world where waste is unmanaged,” says Steve Russell of the ACC. “None of us want to have either the environmental or the legislative consequences of an unmanaged system.”
In Washington, the plastics industry is asking government, and American taxpayers, to foot the bill to revitalize the moribund recycling industry. The RECOVER Act — backed by both PLASTICS and the ACC — would offer $500 million in federal-matching funds for investment in new infrastructure. This summer, PLASTICS showed off a demonstration project with high-tech, near-infrared scanning machines that can segregate plastics by their polymer type, improving on human sorters who can’t distinguish between two identical-seeming yogurt cups, each made from different plastics.
For Sen. Tom Udall, our involuntary ingestion of plastic waste is proof that the country can’t wait decades for plastic polluters to reform their own practices, or rely on half-measures to bolster the current recycling system. “We are beyond the crisis point on plastic waste,” he says, “and people are starting to wake up.” Udall wants consequences for an industry that has sloughed its environmental harms onto the rest of us for long enough.
Washington is late to the game when it comes to plastics regulation, and Udall’s strategy is to adopt best practices from across the globe. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would mimic Europe in banning commonly polluted single-use plastics, including plastic bags, styrofoam cups and carry-out containers, and plastic utensils. Plastic straws would be allowed only by request.
The bill would expand the market for recycled plastics by creating a minimum recycled content for beverage containers, while also imposing a 10-cent deposit on each container sold — roughly nationalizing the models of Michigan and Oregon, where residents return nearly nine in 10 containers for recycling.
The bill would create “extended producer responsibility” — making the industry responsible for the waste it creates by requiring that producers “design, manage, and finance programs to collect and process waste that would normally burden state and local governments.” Udall emphasizes that today’s industry is hardly trying, often slapping an unrecyclable label on an otherwise recyclable bottle. He insists regulation will drive innovation, so that recyclability becomes a top goal of product design. “We’re trying to turn the industry around,” he says, “to do this in a more environmentally sustainable way.”
The legislation would formally ban the U.S. from exporting plastic waste to developing countries, in alignment with the Basel Convention. Perhaps most controversially, the bill would halt construction of new plastics facilities, giving the EPA time to craft new regulations. Udall insists his bill can return value to the economy, and save consumers a lot of money, noting that every year plastic worth up to $120 billion “is lost after one short use.”
The senator is not naive. He knows he’s going up against some of the deepest pockets in the corporate world. “This is not going to be easy,” he says. “Major industry players are going to oppose some of our efforts.” Indeed, PLASTICS is already blasting the single-use ban in his bill, insisting that “bans of otherwise completely recyclable materials will not solve our country’s waste-management issues.” But Udall believes the issue of remediating plastic pollution has the potential to transcend the bitter divides of our current politics. The notion that we’re all consuming a credit card a week turns the stomachs of Republicans just as much as it does Democrats. “We don’t know the human health impacts,” he says. “But we can only imagine they aren’t good.”
The bill’s lead sponsor in the House, Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, insists his motivation isn’t punitive. He points to regulations he helped pass as a state legislator to clean up air pollution at the Port of Los Angeles, which improved public health while modernizing a port that now makes more money than ever: “We’re not interested in destroying the people who provide products to bring our goods to market,” he says. But Lowenthal insists change is coming: “We have to start this process. There’s no quick fix, but we also know that time is not on our side.”
The companies of the plastics industry, Lowenthal says, are ultimately “going to have to deal with the sticker shock that they are now responsible and they’re going to have to pay” to keep plastics out of the environment. The alternative, he insists, has become untenable: “What we have in plastic is something that has made our lives more convenient and easier. But unless we figure out how to keep this out of the waste stream, it’s just going to kill us.”