FRONTLINE: Plastic Wars
Stream now or tune in Tuesday, May 11, 2021 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, May 13 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2
—FRONTLINE and NPR Investigate How the Plastics Industry Used Recycling to Help Sell More Plastic—
On March 31, 2020, the two public media organizations teamed up to examine a mounting crisis: plastic waste in the environment.
Despite efforts spreading across the country to reduce the use of plastic, the plastics industry is rapidly scaling up new production and promoting a familiar solution: recycling. But it’s estimated that no more than 10 percent of plastic produced has ever been recycled.
"Plastic Wars," a joint investigation from FRONTLINE and NPR, reveals how plastic makers for decades have publicly promoted recycling, despite from almost the beginning privately expressing doubts that widespread plastic recycling would ever be economically viable.
“There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way,” Lew Freeman, former VP of government affairs for the Society of the Plastics Industry, tells FRONTLINE and NPR in "Plastic Wars."
Freeman is one of three top executives in the documentary who speak publicly for the first time, detailing the plastics industry’s strategy to promote recycling in the 1980s and 1990s.
Along with a trove of internal documents uncovered by FRONTLINE producer Rick Young, NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan and their team, these insider accounts shed new light on the industry’s efforts to overcome growing concern about plastic waste by pushing recycling.
Larry Thomas, who headed the industry’s chief lobbying group at a crucial time in the late 80s and 90s, says the major plastic makers knew that there wasn’t enough infrastructure for recycling to amount to much, but the strategy was simple: “If the public thinks the recycling is working, then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment,” he says.
Environmentalists ran with the promise of recycling, too: “We bought this myth that recycling will solve the problem and we don't need to worry about the amount of plastic being produced,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, tells FRONTLINE and NPR.
"Plastic Wars" explores how, as plastic sales exploded in the ‘90s and 2000s, much of the waste generated was shipped overseas to be recycled in China. But in 2018, responding to its own pollution problems, China closed its doors to imports of plastic waste.
With the China market closed, the FRONTLINE team travels to Indonesia to see where some of that plastic waste from the U.S. is ending up now—finding that some plastics that are supposed to be recycled are instead being dumped in Indonesian communities already struggling to clean up their own waste.
And now, facing public calls to reduce plastic consumption and ban some single-use plastics, the industry is once again promoting recycling.
Inside a new $6 billion plastic plant along the Texas Gulf Coast, Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.’s Vice President of Sustainability Jim Becker tells FRONTLINE and NPR that his company is committed to the industry goal of eliminating plastic waste from landfills by 2040 and plans to recycle 100 percent of all plastics, even if it means making less money.
Becker says better consumer education about how to recycle and significant improvements in recycling infrastructure are needed: “We’re going to have to invest in innovation because some of these technologies still need to be further developed,” he says.
Pressed on whether the industry’s strategy today is similar to its efforts to fend off plastic bans in the 1980s and 1990s by promoting recycling and new technologies, Steve Russell, until recently the head of the American Chemistry Council’s plastic division, insists this time will be different. “This is about all of us understanding that we each have a role to play in making the system that we have better,” he says. “I think everybody would have to say, we cannot continue with business as usual. It's time for change and this is that time.”
FRONTLINE and NPR have previously collaborated on numerous projects — most recently, an in-depth look at Trump’s Trade War with China, as well as investigations of advanced black lung disease among coal miners ("Coal’s Deadly Dust"), Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Sandy relief efforts ("Blackout in Puerto Rico" and "Business of Disaster"), and America’s affordable housing crisis ("Poverty, Politics and Profit").
Now, in "Plastic Wars," the organizations team up to present a powerful look at one of the major environmental challenges of our time. As David Allaway, a senior policy analyst with the State of Oregon, explains, the national obsession with recycling has distracted attention from the more consequential environmental impacts of ever-growing consumption.
“There's nothing wrong with promoting recycling,” says Allaway, “except when recycling sucks all the oxygen out of the room and we never do anything else. For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country has been about the recycle part of reduce, reuse, recycle. It was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured.”
NPR will air a story from the investigation that same day on "All Things Considered" (see stations and local broadcast times at NPR.org/stations), with additional radio pieces airing in the coming weeks.
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A FRONTLINE production with American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop in collaboration with NPR. The writer and director is Rick Young. The correspondent is Laura Sullivan. The co-producers are Fritz Kramer and Emma Schwartz. The reporters are Emma Schwartz and Laura Sullivan. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producer for FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.