Breaking Down the Claims of a Plastics Greenwash Campaign

Submitted by Mary Meade on
Photo by Jonathan Chng on Unsplash

As public outrage on the plastic pollution crisis has grown, businesses are now grappling with how to reduce their plastic footprint. Meanwhile, misleading claims and plastics greenwashing by manufacturers pose challenges to customers and businesses trying to make sustainable choices.

Plastics manufacturers and trade groups are working to improve the reputation of their products and have used the coronavirus pandemic to boost production. In some cases, misleading and false information is being pushed to present plastics in a better light.

The National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR) has a new marketing campaign called Positively PET, positioning it as the plastic “everyone can feel good about.” PET is one of the most ubiquitous forms of plastic – people drink from it, eat from it, and even wear it.

What is PET?

PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a plastic resin that’s frequently used to package food and beverages. It’s also used in carpet, apparel, and automobile parts. Its first use was as polyester textile fibers in the 1940s and by the 1970s, chemists developed a way to mold it into bottles.

graphic of a PET bottle with claims of how it is better than other plastic.
Figure 1 Infographic, PostivelyPET, NAPCOR

You can identify PET by the small number 1 in the recycling symbol on a container – these numbers are just plastic resin identification numbers and do not mean that an item is recyclable. This confusing labeling causes contamination for recyclers, as recycling bins are filled with many plastics that can’t be recycled or have no end markets.

The industry is attempting to separate PET from other plastic types, with a narrative that it’s high-performing, environmentally friendly, and chemically safe. But how accurate are these claims?

“Infinitely Recyclable”

When materials are “infinitely recyclable,” they can be recycled time and again down to their raw state. Glass and metal fall under this category, but plastic can only be recycled once or twice and often requires new plastic modifiers to be added to strengthen the recycled plastic. Paper fibers also slightly weaken when recycled, but these fibers can be reused roughly seven times in a cascading process from products with longer fibers (magazines and copy paper) down to lower grade items that use shorter fibers (cardboard or tissue paper).

Claims of infinite recyclability for plastics hinges on the use of chemical recycling, which returns plastics to their basic molecular state. It’s estimated that even with the expansion of chemical recycling, only 20 percent of plastics could effectively go through this process because of contamination or limited recycling collection. But GAIA reports that chemical recycling is more energy-intensive, ineffective, and bad for the climate and communities. It releases air pollutants and most plastic waste is lost or burned in the process rather than becoming new usable plastic. Until strict regulations on toxic chemicals, emissions, residue management, and other concerns are passed, GAIA advises that mechanical recycling is a better option with a smaller carbon footprint.

Scaling up recycling capability is a necessary piece of addressing waste, but it alone will not be an effective solution to eradicating plastic pollution. Manufacturing with virgin plastic is cheaper than using recycled and the petroleum industry is increasing its reliance on plastic as a source of revenue. If nothing changes, new plastic production will surpass 400 million metric tons a year by 2040, releasing over 2 billion tons of greenhouse gases and leaking over 29 million tons into our environment.

Even if plastics recycling technology improves, if the economics are still preventing a decrease in virgin production, we will continue to see a flood of plastic waste.

“High Recycling Rate”

In an effective recycling system, we would use fewer new materials and reduce resource extraction. But new plastic production is expected to triple by 2050 and the overall recycling rate for plastics is a dismal 8 percent. The claim that PET is the most recycled plastic is accurate, but it’s misleading to suggest PET recycling rates are “high.” Each year, just 29 percent of PET bottles and jars are recycled in the United States.

For decades, the plastics industry has increasingly filled our waste streams with a range of items, insisting that recyclers deal with any mold of mix of plastic resins. The oil industry makes more than $400 billion a year making plastic, showing little incentive to boost recycling rates that would compete with new plastic production. Industry records prove that there has always been “serious doubt” that plastic recycling could ever be viable on an economic basis. Despite this knowledge, the industry has continued to mislead the public.

“Fewer Environmental Impacts”

Plastic is lightweight, durable, and flexible, which are incredible qualities for packaging but also why managing plastic is so difficult. The variety of plastic molds and resins is a challenge for recyclers to sort and sell. Small, light plastic items can be lost in the management process or be erroneously sorted and end up contaminating other recyclable materials at sorting facilities.

The plastics industry cites the lower transportation emissions from plastic, but life cycle models show that even if some materials slightly increase transportation impacts, the savings on the production and disposal phases compared to plastic still generate overall emission savings.

The industry claims PET causes fewer impacts than other forms of packaging, such as aluminum, but this claim doesn’t reference disposal. Recycling plastic poses technical and economic challenges, but aluminum can be recycled time and again without loss of quality and beverage cans have on average 73 percent recycled content.

We can’t compare materials without considering their market demand, current recycling infrastructure, and risks they pose when polluted into the environment. The industry says that aluminum cans polluted into waterways sink while plastics float near the surface, presumably making plastic easier to remove from the environment. The reality is that a dump truck worth of plastic enters our oceans every minute. An estimated 99 percent of this plastic ends up buried on the sea floor or suspended deep below the water’s surface, posing grave threats to wildlife. Some items break down over time only to become microplastics in the air we breathe and the food we eat.

This crisis is caused by a deluge of plastic items that manufacturers are churning out at increasing speed. The plastics industry has continued to push recycling as the solution while also blocking efforts to improve recycling and reduce waste at every turn.

Real Solutions for Plastics Greenwashing

Greenwashing industries have no place in a truly green economy. While plastic tries to fix its public image, its wave of pollution continues to surge. Many businesses want to shrink their plastic footprint but are uncertain of which solution fits their unique packaging needs. The good news is that packaging solutions exist that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and serve a more circular, responsible management of materials.

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