Plastic pollution is not your fault and recycling was never designed to work. Part One.

Among the biggest pieces of global gaslighting the world has ever seen is the one that convinced consumers and local governments to accept responsibility for litter and plastic pollution.

Gaslighting at this level is a decades-long endeavour, but it can be undone with less effort than it takes you to remember to bring your reusable bags to the supermarket.

Part one of this series details how we were sold this story and why. Hint — recycling was never designed to work!

Part two provides insights and access to the real solution.

Buckle up, this is both a fascinating story and a blessed relief for the guilt-ridden consumer.

The incentive to push plastic began after WWII when the mass production shifted from wartime equipment to household items needed in civilian life. Chemical industries were determined to keep profits high after the wartime boom (Lim, 2019; Hillary, 2019) however, a nearly circular economy existed and the mend and make do attitude of the war was still firmly entrenched.

The public needed ‘educating’ and convinced to use “throwaway goods”.

To kickstart a golden age of consumerism, corporate brands advertised plastic as cheap and convenient while instilling disposable habits in the public — throwing things away was framed as progressive and modern when compared to washing and reusing. See these 1960s vintage advertisements (which we can’t post them here due to copyright)

This advertising worked, plastic use skyrocketed. The damage didn’t take long to accumulate.

By the 1970s, plastic was found in plankton samples collected from seawater in the North Sea, and even on a much larger scale in the northern Atlantic Ocean (Barnes et. al, 2009). By 1980, 15 out of 37 marine bird species in Alaska were found to have ingested plastic particles (Day, 1980).

The consumer backlash stemming from increased awareness saw growth in environmental movements, legislation, and animosity towards plastic. In 1971, New York attempted to implement a statewide tax on plastic bottles (Sullivan, 2020). Six years later, Hawaii became the first to ban them altogether (Environmental Law Reporter, 1979).

The response from chemical companies was to shift the blame onto consumers with campaigns like the “Keep America Beautiful” (founded in 1953) and the annual Great American Cleanup (2014, 2020). It is no mistake that these clean-ups are funded by companies such as Dow Chemical, Diageo, Pepsico, and Phillips 66.

Meanwhile, the Society of the Plastics Industry, created in 1937, was fully aware that its products were polluting but it refused to accept responsibility. The group — led by industry officials including Lew Freeman, Larry Thomas, Ron Liesemer and backed by hundreds of corporations in the plastic supply chain — aimed to help oil companies recover lost revenue and launder the reputation of plastic. They hatched a plan. Recycling.

They didn’t believe recycling would work, they believed selling recycling would sell plastic (Sullivan, 2020).

“a report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 call[ing] recycling plastic “costly” and “difficult”, [and] sorting it “infeasible,” saying “there is no recovery from obsolete products.” [A year later, a more candid document revealed] there [was] “serious doubt” widespread plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

– Laura Sullivan, All Things Considered: NPR

What they were confident in was that the more consumers threw away, the more they would buy, and the more money would be made. They were right! Evidence from the Journal of Consumer Psychology shows that the option to recycle actually increases resource consumption (Catlin et. al, 2012).

“the per person restroom paper hand towel usage increased after the introduction of a recycling bin.”

It is no wonder plastic use continues to rise, and the fault of the individual is still pushed as the dominant narrative.

Resist this industrial gaslight and instead learn about the movements that will genuinely solve this problem. They are detailed in Part Two of this post.

Biotech company making new plastics inspired by a species of solitary bee.