Despite the well-established understanding that recycling plastic is neither technically nor economically feasible, petrochemical companies, individually and through their industry trade associations and front groups, have undertaken deceptive marketing and public education efforts.

According to a recent report, these campaigns are designed to misguide the public regarding the effectiveness of plastic recycling as a solution to plastic waste.

"Petrochemical companies and the plastics industry should be held liable for their coordinated campaign of deception and the resulting harms that communities are now facing. True accountability will put an end to the industry’s fraud of plastic recycling and open the door to real solutions to the plastic waste crisis that is currently out of reach," the report said.

The document titled "The Fraud of Plastic Recycling," issued by the Center for Climate Integrity, asserts that these endeavours to deceive the public have played a crucial role in safeguarding and enlarging plastic markets. Simultaneously, they have impeded legislative or regulatory initiatives that could genuinely tackle issues related to plastic waste and pollution.

"Fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies have used the false promise of plastic recycling to exponentially increase virgin plastic production over the last six decades, creating and perpetuating the global plastic waste crisis and imposing significant costs on communities that are left to pay for the consequences."

The introduction of the report released this month states that entities such as Big Oil and the plastics industry, comprising petrochemical companies, their trade associations, and affiliated front groups, should face accountability for their deceptive campaigns.

The call for accountability is likened to the measures taken against producers of tobacco, opioids, and toxic chemicals involved in similar deceptive schemes.
The report establishes this argument by providing an overview of the well-documented technical and economic limitations of plastic recycling. It details how, in response to public backlash against plastic waste and potential regulatory actions, the plastics industry has promoted plastic recycling to the public.

The report also presents evidence supporting the assertion of fraudulent and deceptive campaigns by the plastics industry.

Plastic pollution stands as one of the most critical environmental crises worldwide. In the period between 1950 and 2015, over 90% of plastics faced disposal through landfills, incineration, or environmental leakage.

The pervasive nature of plastic waste is evident, spanning from rivers, lakes, and oceans to roadways and coastlines globally. It infiltrates "the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the water we drink," according to the report.

A study suggests that humans may consume up to five grams, equivalent to the size of a credit card, of plastic per week.

Notably, some of the largest oil and gas companies rank among the 20 petrochemical companies responsible for over half of the globally generated single-use plastics.

Companies’ Deceitful Solution

The report asserts that in response to increasing public criticism over plastic waste and the looming potential for regulations, companies within the plastics industry have consistently employed a playbook for over 50 years to evade accountability.

"Petrochemical companies—independently and through industry trade associations and front groups—have deceived consumers, policymakers, and regulators into believing that they could address the plastic waste crisis through a series of false solutions."

The report highlights the industry's initial strategy of promoting landfilling and incineration to conceal plastic from public view.

However, it became evident that these disposal methods would not appease a public increasingly frustrated by the overwhelming presence of disposable plastics.

"People did not want more landfills, did not want incineration, and did not want plastic in the environment. This public outcry led to calls for bans on single-use plastics to protect their markets. The petrochemical companies began a decades-long, coordinated effort to sell the public on plastic recycling—despite their knowledge that it was neither technically nor economically viable."

The report accuses petrochemical companies, contending that the plastics industry persists in adopting the same strategy. It involves a multifaceted public relations campaign to promote "advanced recycling" to the public.

However, a mounting body of evidence supports the assertion that the majority of plastic recycling, in any form, is currently unfeasible and has never been viable. The report calls for holding the petrochemical companies responsible for promoting this deception accountable.

"Beginning in the 1950s, the petrochemical companies that produced plastic resins identified a way to ensure a steady, growing demand for plastic disposability. If plastic products were used only once, then they would need to be purchased—and thus produced—again and again.

At the Society of the Plastics Industry’s (SPI) 1956 national conference, participants were told that “developments should be aimed at low cost, big volume, practicability, and expendability.” In short, the producers’ aim should be for their products to end up “in the garbage wagon.”

"The shift to disposables began almost immediately—even for products that had previously been sold to customers on the basis that they could be repurposed.39 plastic dry cleaning bags were advertised as durable and reusable throughout the 1950s, but the industry quickly changed tack in 1959 after about 80 children suffocated on plastic dry cleaner bags, leading to immense public backlash against the industry and some of the earliest calls for plastic bans."

The report's authors challenged industry representations regarding "advanced recycling," also termed "chemical recycling." This umbrella term encompasses various processes such as pyrolysis, gasification, hydrolysis, and methanolysis, among others, designed to break down polymers into basic chemical elements. The authors argue that these technologies are neither "advanced" nor "recycling." Despite being labelled "advanced," they have existed for decades without proving to be a viable solution for plastic waste. Furthermore, they are not truly "recycling" since they do not lead to the production of new plastic products.

Instead, these processes, involving exposure of plastic waste to extreme heat or chemicals, generate unrefined oil byproducts and hazardous waste byproducts.

CCCFS’ reaction to the report

"Plastic recycling is, indeed, a deception! Ghana should cease the production and importation of all types of single-use plastics. Given the state of waste management in Ghana, especially in urban areas, it is clear that the country grapples with significant challenges in handling solid waste, particularly plastic waste," stated Dr Alexander Nti-Kani, a Climate and Environmental Economist at the Centre for Climate Change and Food Security (CCCFS).

Dr Nti-Kani emphasizes that the current waste management systems are mostly un-engineered, relying on outdated practices like open burning, landfilling, and open dumping. This lack of proper waste management infrastructure not only contributes to environmental pollution but also poses risks to ecosystems.

He points out that, given the alarming statistic that 91% of plastics worldwide are not recycled, it becomes challenging to justify the current usage of plastics in Ghana.
Dr Nti-Kani emphasizes that, out of the total global plastics production, less than 10% of plastic waste has been recycled to date.

He stated that "Approximately 75% of the global plastics produced are thermoplastics, capable of being melted and moulded repeatedly to create new plastics, theoretically making all thermoplastics recyclable. The remaining 25% consists of thermoset plastics, which do not soften when exposed to heat, making them nearly impossible to recycle. Products utilizing this type of plastic include electrical insulation, ropes, belts, and pipes."

Dr Nti-Kani also highlights that, despite the challenges associated with the use of thermoset plastics, their durable nature means they are disposed of less frequently. In theory, this causes less environmental damage compared to thermoplastics.

However, disposal issues with thermoplastics include their significant contribution to microplastic water contamination and incineration leads to notable greenhouse gas emissions and deteriorates air quality.

He pointed out, "If, as of 2021, the USA had an estimated recycling rate of 6% for plastic, despite its advanced plastics waste collection and management, and plastic recycling has consistently failed to materialise due to long-known technical and economic limitations, then Ghana should consider a complete shift away from single-use plastics. It is safe to assert that plastic recycling is indeed deceptive!"

Dr Nti-Kani emphasizes that the Centre's standpoint, asserting that the use of plastics as single-use items is a significant problem for Ghana, holds merit. The mismanagement of plastic waste in Ghana currently exacerbates challenges in waste disposal, leading to environmental degradation.

He underscores the importance of a shift towards more sustainable practices, advocating for measures such as reducing single-use plastics, promoting recycling, and adopting advanced waste management technologies. This, he contends, is crucial to effectively address the pressing sanitation and environmental concerns in Ghana.

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