May 16, 2019; Center for Public Integrity
The US economy is ostensibly driven by the supply and demand in the marketplace. While the market often seems to have a mind of its own, as in past crazes like Beanie Babies, people still attempt to steer it, regardless of potential damage.
The plastics industry, a significant piece of the global economy, is in the spotlight these days, with ever-increasing damage done to oceans, fish, and wildlife by the material that does not biodegrade. The way trash is handled is particularly problematic. The industry has spent years sending the message that recycling would solve our problems. Time has proven that wrong.
In 1988, New York’s Suffolk County on Long Island, with overwhelmed landfills and unhappy residents, determined that the problem had reached a tipping point. The county legislators took the leap in 1988 and passed a ban on plastic bags, the first of its kind in the country. The plastic industry took it as a throwing down of the gauntlet.
“We had never seen lobbyists like this before,” said Steven Englebright, the chief sponsor of the bill. “The B.S. came in by the shovel-load.”
It took 30 years to execute the ban, but Suffolk County, in January of 2018, put a 5-cent fee on plastic and paper bags. Suffolk reports that 1.1 billion fewer bags were circulated from businesses into the use/trash stream in just that one year. The rest of the state of New York joined the ban a little over a year later with the governor’s signature in April.
“It’s gratifying, but we still have so much more plastic going into the waste stream,” said Englebright, now a New York state assemblyman. Action, he said, could have been taken much earlier. “We really should not have had a 30-year delay.”
Bans like these do not sit well with the plastic industry—or with ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative think tank that creates templates for bills to move their business-friendly agenda. ALEC is a $10 million 501c3 public charity that boasts a quarter of all state legislators as members. The Plastic Industry Association worked with ALEC from 2013 thru 2017 to create “preemption” bills, a strategy that ALEC uses to make laws that stop states from regulating activities, such as controlling pesticides, using the argument that local laws can confuse businesses and consumers:
In September 2015, ALEC approved a template for preempting local regulation of disposable containers and bags, complete with an easy-to-fill “[Insert Jurisdiction]” blank. Now, about a dozen states have passed some version of plastic preemption—including Arizona in 2016.
The Plastics Industry Association affirms it was not involved that model policy development. The industry has spent decades promoting recycling, although the market for recycling is poor, and has gotten worse since China has begun to refuse American trash to recycle. About a dozen states now have regulations to stop regulations on plastic, while 8 million tons of the 300 million tons of plastic thrown out annually end up in the ocean.
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“The industry has kept us from confronting plastics for decades through corporate lobbying and threats of litigation,” said Jennie Romer, a lawyer, longtime anti-plastics activist and founder of the website PlasticBagLaws.org. “Billions of single-use plastic items have made it into our environment because of this.”
“We believe uncollected plastics do not belong in the environment,” the Plastics Industry Association, a key trade group, wrote in a statement after declining an interview. “The problem is that waste management practices and infrastructure did not keep pace with the changing economy.”
The group argued that plastics are more environmentally friendly than alternatives—using fewer resources to create, while also making end products lighter—and are crucial for global commerce.
The industry saw danger signs in disposing of plastics in the 1960s, holding a conference on packaging waste in 1969. Recycling became the favored option; the industry formed the Council for Solid Waste Solutions “to promote that option—along with incinerating—even though the recycling is limited, vendors prohibit plastic bags because they clog up the machinery, and incinerating produces air pollution.”
“No doubt about it, legislation [restricting plastics] is the single most important reason why we are looking at recycling,” said Wayne Pearson, the then-executive director of the Plastics Recycling Foundation, an initiative that 45 companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi formed in the mid-1980s.
For three decades, the plastics industry has been working overtime to get the message out that recycling is the answer to the millions of tons of single-use plastic waste. A project, “Toxic Docs,” based at City University of New York and Columbia University, uncovered internal documents that indicated “outright bans on polystyrene packaging were dropped with a promise of recycling by industry.” Waste Management, a company that handles garbage, reported receiving pressure to accept even more plastic for recycling.
As far back as 1972, one Society of the Plastics Industry document read, “Currently, there is no market for recycled plastics.” From 1987, a document acknowledged, “Recycling currently is not feasible for most multi-material packages.” And now, Waste Management filing stated, some plastics still have “no viable end markets.”
Public opinion still has a chance in the push-and-pull between the plastics industry, the work that ALEC has done, the needs of the public for plastics, and the science required to solve the recycling problems. Advocacy for less plastic has grown among the younger generation. “The water bottle has, in some way, become the mink coat or the pack of cigarettes,” said John Caturano, senior sustainability manager for Nestlé Waters North America, at a conference this March. “It’s socially not very acceptable to the young folks, and that scares me.” (Nestlé has pledged to make all its packaging “recyclable or reusable” by 2025.)
What started in Suffolk County, New York, has made its way across country to places like Hawaii, which would like to include straws and foam containers. Suffolk County moved ahead of the pack again, putting a ban against plastic straws in place for the first of next year.—Marian Conway