Your future’s in the trash can: How the plastic industry promoted waste to make money

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST: The world’s nations are racing to adopt a treaty this year to cut plastic waste. That’s because every month, companies produce tens of millions of tons of plastic. It’s everywhere – toilet seats and clothing, candy wrappers and grocery bags. Most of it ends up in places like landfills and oceans, and it breaks down and gets into our bodies. But it wasn’t always this way. Michael Copley from NPR’s Climate Desk reports on how plastic became so ingrained in modern life. (SOUNDBITE OF LEAVES CRUNCHING) MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: On a windy spring morning in western New York, Jill Jedlicka walks the banks of the Buffalo River. JILL JEDLICKA: When you look off into the distance, you see nature trying to take back a river system that once used to be unspoiled by humans. COPLEY: Jedlicka leads an environmental group called Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. She talked to NPR when she was at a bend in the river near Lake Erie, picking up trash with volunteers. JEDLICKA: I’m looking at a lot of plastic, unfortunately. We see plastic tops, bottles, single-use plastics from takeout food. COPLEY: A lot of the plastic here comes from one corporation, PepsiCo. That’s according to New York State Attorney General Letitia James. Her office sued Pepsi in 2023. It says plastic pollution around the Buffalo River is a nuisance and that Pepsi contributes to the problem by selling tons of single-use packaging for its drink bottles and food wrappers. Pepsi says the case should be dismissed. It said in a statement to NPR that it’s trying to cut down on how much plastic it uses. Here’s one of Pepsi’s recent ads. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: At PepsiCo, we value our planet and the role we play in improving the environment. COPLEY: Researchers and environmentalists say Pepsi’s one of the biggest plastic polluters globally, but it’s just one company out of tens of thousands that rely on the material. Plastic’s cheap and convenient, but it’s also widespread because the industry started working decades ago to persuade people to embrace disposable products and packaging. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: That’s right. There’s nothing like Saran Wrap. It’s the crystal-clear plastic that lets you see everything you wrap. Now look at this. Saran Wrap clings like magic. COPLEY: The chemical company Dow ran that ad in 1953. Synthetic plastic was patented in the early 1900s. It was known as Bakelite, and it sparked a boom in durable and affordable consumer goods. Companies soon rolled out different kinds of plastic. Most of it was marketed as reusable. A 1955 DuPont commercial showed how tough plastic products cut down on messes for a made-up housewife named Jane with two rambunctious kids and a made up place called Plasticstown, USA. (SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Whoops, that could have been a mess. An unbreakable plastic container seems to be a must with kids around the house. COPLEY: But soon, the messaging started to change. The editor of an influential trade magazine told the plastics industry at a 1956 conference to pivot to disposability. Over the years, Lloyd Stouffer said convincing people to throw out plastic cups and plates was a sure fire way to boost sales. He said the industry’s future was in the trash can. Heather Davis is an assistant professor at The New School in New York, who’s written about the plastics industry. HEATHER DAVIS: Those corporations were doing what they’re supposed to do, which is make a lot of money. COPLEY: But Davis says companies had to get around a big cultural barrier to disposability. Adults at the time survived the Great Depression and World War II, and Davis says they were trained to save as much as possible. DAVIS: Having to tell people that they’re supposed to be throwing things away was, like, very, very, very foreign to what people did. COPLEY: Companies came up with a solution, emphasize how cheap and abundant plastic was. And it worked. Soon, big soft drink companies like Pepsi were selling soda in plastic bottles. Bart Elmore is a professor of environmental history at Ohio State University. He says the material helped companies cut costs. It’s lightweight, so it made shipping inexpensive. BART ELMORE: This was a silver bullet for them from an economic standpoint. COPLEY: But at the same time, Elmore says plastic posed a public relations risk for the companies. ELMORE: Even if you convinced people that maybe the disposability of plastics isn’t such a bad thing, people are still seeing this waste out in public. COPLEY: And it was easy for the public to tie the waste back to companies like Pepsi. Their names were stamped right there on the packaging. So the drink-makers went on offense. Elmore says they fought bans on throwaway bottles, and they joined the plastics industry in promoting recycling. ELMORE: You can see that in their – the way they talk about recycling. Don’t worry. We’ve got this problem under control. Plastics is the best package moving forward in part because of its recyclability. COPLEY: However, multiple investigations, including by NPR, have shown that the plastics industry knew for years that recycling probably wouldn’t work on a large scale, mainly because making new plastic is cheap. But they pushed recycling anyway to keep new regulations from being put on companies. There hasn’t been evidence that drink-makers like Pepsi were part of those internal discussions. ELMORE: One could be generous to these companies and say, they gambled on recycling. COPLEY: The plastics industry says those investigations don’t accurately reflect today’s industry. Matt Seaholm runs a business group called the Plastics Industry Association. He says the answer to plastic’s environmental problems is better recycling, not using less plastic. MATT SEAHOLM: We’ll continue to advocate on behalf of not just the producers but also the users of plastic as it is an essential part of society at this point. COPLEY: But understanding how plastic became ingrained in society is important. That’s according to Susan Freinkel. She’s an author who’s written about society’s relationship with material. SUSAN FREINKEL: Knowing that there was a prehistory, knowing that there was a time before plastic bags, a time before salad in a bag, a time before, I don’t know, name your plastic schlocky thing – makes you maybe realize that it’s possible to find other ways of doing things. COPLEY: Davis, at The New School, says it’s also important for holding the right people accountable. DAVIS: One of the things that the industry has been incredibly good at is making individual people feel like they are personally responsible for massive widespread pollution. And it’s just not true unless you happen to be a CEO of one of those plastic companies. COPLEY: Countries are negotiating a global agreement this year to rein in plastic pollution. A lot of focus is on the chemical and fossil fuel companies that make plastic. Scientists and activists say the world needs to limit plastic production to have any hope of managing the waste effectively. But Bart Elmore says consumer goods companies like Pepsi also deserve scrutiny. They buy a ton of plastic, and that gives them a lot of influence. ELMORE: If they take a stand one way or the other, it has a huge global impact. COPLEY: Pepsi said in comments to NPR that it’s trying to improve recycling and reduce waste. New York prosecutors want Pepsi to pay for cleaning up the plastic waste it’s allegedly caused in the Buffalo River and for the company to prevent future pollution. Prosecutors also want Pepsi to put labels on some of its packaging warning that plastic poses environmental and health risks. Jedlicka, the environmentalist, says individual consumers still bear some responsibility for stopping pollution. JEDLICKA: Nobody’s trying to give a free pass to society – to saying, OK, you can continue to litter and have poor behavior. COPLEY: But she says companies need to be doing a lot more to keep their products out of the environment. JEDLICKA: They’re making money off of it. Part of those profits and some of that revenue should be put back into solving the problem. COPLEY: Jedlicka says that’s especially important because the plastic coming from companies like Pepsi is used for just an instant. But once it becomes pollution, it stays in the environment for generations. Michael Copley, NPR News. (SOUNDBITE OF MF DOOM’S “CHRYSANTHEMUM FLOWERS”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR. NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR’s Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they’re being impacted by rising temperatures.
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