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The Problem with Plastic: The Oil Industry

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Today we continue looking into why plastic is such a problematic and pervasive material in our every day lives. If you missed the first post in this series, you can find it here.

These guys again?! Indeed. The Oil Industry are the Michael Myers of corporate malevolence and misinformation, but let's eschew the rampant egregious examples of why these people belong in prison and focus specifically on the original sin of recycling: the green triangle recycling logo:

We've all seen this in one form or another, and it adorns much of the plastic in your own home. It's on bags and food containers and delivery packaging, and we all draw comfort from this, knowing that it is some of the good plastic and we'll put it in the right bin and we'll be doing our small part to help create less plastic waste. Right? Welp.

This logo started off innocently enough, designed in 1970 by then 23 year-old Gary Anderson, an engineering student at the University of Southern California. He submitted it to a competition being run by the Container Corporation of America, a large paper recycled paper manufacturer. He won, and that was that. So far, so good, right? Right. This is where things start to go off the rails.

In 1988, the American Society of the Plastics Industry created the resin identification code to track what type of plastic was used in a given product. They numbered these resins, and put the number inside 3 arrows that formed a triangle, bearing a striking similarity to Gary's original recycling logo.

You can see what they were doing, and it was entirely on purpose. A 2020 report from NPR did a deep dive into the oil and plastic industry's association with this logo dug up not only black and white evidence of a coverup dating back to the early 1970s, but a coordinated campaign to get this logo on every plastic product possible in order to assuage consumer guilt (and anti-plastic sentiment) about the products filling our lives.

From the NPR article:

Industry documents from this time show that just a couple of years earlier, starting in 1989, oil and plastics executives began a quiet campaign to lobby almost 40 states to mandate that the symbol appear on all plastic — even if there was no way to economically recycle it. Some environmentalists also supported the symbol, thinking it would help separate plastic. A report given to top officials at the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1993 told them about the problems. "The code is being misused," it says bluntly. "Companies are using it as a 'green' marketing tool."

Overtime rules were put in place meant to properly convey which products were actually recyclable. The challenge is those rules are as deceiving as the symbol itself. In the US, the Federal Trade Commission sets these guidelines and states a "substantial majority" of consumers (generally taken to be 60%) must have access to a recycling facility that accepts a given type of plastic for that logo to be included on the product. "Accepts" is the key word here, because nowhere does it say these items actually have to be processed by the facility that takes them in.

And this, dear reader, is where we really swallow the red pill.

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