In Essays, Innovation

It turns out that plastic recycling is a ruse invented by the oil and gas industry to stave off consumer backlash and more restrictive regulation.

The majority of plastic waste we throw into recycling bins either can’t or won’t be recycled, according to an investigative report that aired on NPR in late March. Less than 10% of it has been recycled over the past 40 years, and the industry knew this fact while it told the world otherwise.

This represents a far more overt and sinister (and successful) effort to mislead us compared to the fossil fuel industry’s campaign to sow confusion over climate change. Sure, claiming there were “two sides” to a debate that doesn’t exist was dishonest, but convincing us that stuffing our blue bins with plastic was good for the planet was a boldfaced lie.

Now there’s no way we can take on face-value any of the statements made by those companies or their trade industry shills ever again. Just read the Plastic Industry Association’s response to the NPR story, and you’ll spend more time reading between the lines than anything else.

It didn’t have to be this way.

I blame corporate leaders who valued the next quarter’s profits over all else. I blame government regulators who didn’t understand the science, or chose to ignore it. I blame an accounting standards regime that didn’t assign value to the environment or human health. I blame public relations and advertising people who confused propaganda with persuasion.

And I blame us.

I know that I couldn’t tell you where the plastic goes once I throw it in the bin, just like I don’t know what happens to the rest of the mountains of garbage my household generates every week.

Maybe you’re a more informed consumer than I am, but I don’t think any of us (or enough of us) pushed on the plastics topic; had we done so, perhaps we could have uncovered the truth sooner?

Fortunately, we have far more tools available to us now than we did a decade ago, let alone 40 years ago when the recycling lies first appeared. NGOs, online communities, and smartphone apps let us better explore and monitor what’s being presented to us, whether about plastics or any other products.

This represents a meaningful shift in power from those who share content to its intended recipients.

Because, sadly, while the oil and gas industry might be the most egregious example of corporate evil, the chances are that other industries haven’t been telling us the whole truth, either. So, I’m using this latest revelation from NPR to get more serious about looking at original sources, supply chains, and the entire use/discard cycles for the stuff I consume.

But the idea that it’s just my job alone, and that consumers need to look out for themselves without any help — or in the face of active corporate efforts to confuse us — is unacceptable.

I think companies need to reevaluate how they communicate, too.

Specifically, the idea that facts can or should be twisted to make a point probably needs some seriously explicit, narrow, and irrevocable guardrails, and then communicators need to have the audacity to say no when employers or clients challenge them.

I believe that PR people need to serve not just as translators of company operations, but as guardians of truth. Less tactical stooges, and more moral advisors.

Imagine had the plastics industry chosen to tell us the truth about recycling in the first place. It would have been hard, unsatisfying, and lots of us might have rejected it outright. But a concerted, transparent, and long-term campaign intended to educate and inform consumers about the reality of recycling might have established better understanding of the real issues…and bought companies the space and time to work on real solutions.

It would have also been a better mercenary business decision.

The lesson here is that informing consumers is better than simply trying to spin or keep them quiet.

Oh, and don’t lie.

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