Recycled Appeasement Bites 'Big Oil'

Monday, September 14, 2020

Quiz time.

The fallout from China's decision to stop accepting plastic for recycling from overseas has been:

If it were economical to do something besides landfilling these, there would be no need to force anyone to do it. (Image by Tanvi Sharma, via Unsplash, license.)
  • a. American governments admit that recycling currently makes no economic sense for plastics, and end plastics collection;
  • b. Environmentalists reconsider their advocacy of such programs in light of the time and money they waste;
  • c. The public belatedly recognizes that burying useless waste is sometimes a better option than recycling; or
  • d. The left doubles down on recycling by scapegoating producers.
Courtesy of NPR, which obviously feels safe reporting enough facts for a thinking person to see the unfairness of it all, we see that the answer is a big D.

Since Americans have had the idea that recycling is inherently good drummed into their skulls for at least two generations, I'll connect the dots from the story in an order appropriate to show what has happened.

Those of us old enough to remember when people didn't waste time sorting through trash and storing it like gold, will recall recycling bins popping up all over the place around the mid-nineties. This occurred, in part, because:
"The feeling was the plastics industry was under fire -- we got to do what it takes to take the heat off, because we want to continue to make plastic products," [Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry] says.
Like any industry under fire, the oil companies used advertising, but do note (1) the source of the flames, and (2) the nature of the response:
"Presenting the possibilities of plastic!" one iconic ad blared, showing kids in bike helmets and plastic bags floating in the air.

"This advertising was motivated first and foremost by legislation and other initiatives that were being introduced in state legislatures and sometimes in Congress," Freeman says, "to ban or curb the use of plastics because of its performance in the waste stream."

At the same time, the industry launched a number of feel-good projects, telling the public to recycle plastic. It funded sorting machines, recycling centers, nonprofits, even expensive benches outside grocery stores made out of plastic bags.

Few of these projects actually turned much plastic into new things.

NPR tracked down almost a dozen projects the industry publicized starting in 1989...
The article doesn't mention the misplaced priorities of environmentalists, or that this legislation was largely prompted by ridiculous rumors to the effect that the United States was running out of landfill space (PDF). Many of us who remember that time may or may not recall that, but we will recall a big push from apparently every direction at once from around that time to recycle.

Part of that push, understandably -- but also wrongly and unfortunately -- came from plastics producers, aka "Big Oil." Plastics producers needed to say something, and insofar as they reminded the public of the many benefits plastics bring, they were absolutely right to do so.

Insofar as they promoted the wasteful practice of recycling, however, they were wrong. It is interesting to note what NPR admits about recycling plastics:
Here's the basic problem: All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can't be reused more than once or twice.

On the other hand, new plastic is cheap. It's made from oil and gas, and it's almost always less expensive and of better quality to just start fresh.
The article harps on the fact that the oil companies knew this then, and probably realize it now -- but chose to push recycling, anyway, possibly in hopes that technological advances would make it practical, but not being entirely on-the-level about the economics. The article vastly downplays the role of environmentalists in smearing the oil companies and improperly demanding the government start recycling programs.

And so, after a scheme pushed by left-wing activists and improperly passed into law by legislators failed, it's easy to get away with headlines like NPR's: "How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled."

Plastics vastly improve our lives: The oil companies frankly had bragging rights about their good work, and should have campaigned against the new improper, time-wasting, and money-wasting recycling laws. Instead, they half-heartedly defended themselves and half-compromised, promoting measures they knew wouldn't work and should have known were wrong.

And, based on what I see in this story and elsewhere, the oil companies are once again accepting unearned blame for producing plastics, getting behind an uneconomical form of recycling, and taking improper government coercion sitting down.

Spoiler alert: They got no moral credit for doing this the first time, and they won't get moral credit for doing this again.

It's up to "Big Oil" to end the sorry cycle perpetrated here by the left, of (1) casting unearned blame, (2) making unreasonable demands, (3) foisting improper laws on the American public (including the oil companies), (4) calling "Big Oil" on dishonesty (while avoiding blame), and (5) repeat ad nauseam.

Or, to put it differently, if you do anything that looks remotely like you agree with the left, they will recycle what you did into fresh grounds to order you to bow to their demands again later.

-- CAV


: Corrected three typos.


Anonymous said...

Hey Gus:

This is something that drives me nuts about companies, and in particular oil companies: they are constantly ceding the moral high ground. I remember the recycling push in 1989, I was 11 years old. They were hammering it in our heads about this and the ozone layer. Notice the ozone layer and the dangers of aerosol cans is no longer the issue de jure? As I got older I thought it silly to waste time parsing out garbage since I tend to reuse bags, and some bottles anyway. Especially those plastic grocery bags. I use those for my office and bathroom garbage cans.

This is why philosophy is so important. I get the metaphorical hair pulling feeling when the business community is always acquiescing because they don't understand the philosophic implications. If "big oil" had the courage over 30 years ago to speak up about this nonsense, the environmentalist movement would have lost their credibility. If those peddling this silliness had stop to think, half the things we take for granted are made from plastics. In fact, the modern world is made from plastics. This whole decibel reminds me of Rand's article, and one of my favorites "The Missing Link". Just looking at California burn constantly at the same time every year, all because the environmentalist have made it illegal to do basic forestry management!!!

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...


I have about a decade on you. The thing that caused me to look askance at environmentalists when I was ten or eleven was silliness about the world somehow running out of drinking water. I didn't buy that for a second.

I had heard of the water cycle and I knew that there were plants to improve the quality of the water before it was sent into our pipes.

Yes: More moral courage from industry would be nice, but also, if more people generally integrated/could integrate their knowledge from field to field, environmentalism would be a tougher sell.


Dinwar said...

Somewhat ironically this push led to less-efficient plastic products. I recall as a kid re-using butter tubs and other containers that groceries came in. They were great for storing leftovers, nails, Lego blocks, puzzle pieces, and earthworms for fishing. Even the brown paper bags we carried the groceries in were re-used--either as book covers or to hold fruit from our trees (which rots faster in plastic bags). Glass jars became vases, cocoa powder cans became piggy banks, and Pringles cans made great storage containers for nuts and bolts. Then the anti-oil crusade came in, and this was no longer an option. Containers aren't as durable anymore, plastic grocery bags are too thin to even be used as trash bags, paper bags are impossible to find, and many examples of recycling that arose through thrift and rational thought are no longer possible.

This sort of short-sighted thinking is rampant in the environmental lobby. You can see it in attempts to preserve trees (paper is made from tree farms, not old-growth hardwoods, and therefore INCREASES the number of trees), dietary guidance ("eat local" increases resource use in attempts to grow non-native foods), the Endangered Species lists (it's photogenic critters, not ecologically important ones), and single-use plastics (it takes about 150 uses for a ceramic cup to use fewer resources than a disposable plastic one). And if you point out these well-established and widely-known facts, Environmentalists smear you with every name they can come up with. By their own standards Environmentalists are hypocrites, morally bankrupt, and failures. Yet somehow we're supposed to be the bad guys.

Gus Van Horn said...


I'm with you on the second paragraph, but on the fence about the first.

Yes: The plastic products themselves tend towards less reusability. But then again, how many butter tubs is anyone going to keep, anyway? It may well be less wasteful for lots of these things to be single-use. My personal example: I go through LOTS of Folgers. I often re-use those cans, but toss the vast majority. But the same thing happens even where recycling is all the rage. Think about all those reusable shopping bags that go to landfills, anyway. But, yes, I find the new inability to use most single-use shipping bags as trash can liners slightly annoying.


P.S. The Folgers cans remind me: I may be a beer snob, but I drink the Budweiser of coffee. Amusingly, I used to have a neighbor who drinks Bud, but is a coffee snob.)

Dinwar said...

I get your point on the re-use of items. What I found with my grandparents was that there's a lifespan for those plastic tubs. So what you end up with is a certain number in circulation at any given time--as old ones break down you have new ones to bring in. If my grandparents generated 3 or 4 new tubs a year, they generally had to toss 3 or 4 new tubs. So the total number of tubs they had stayed the same.

One of my sisters does agree with you. She routinely goes through our parents' plastic container cabinet (with their permission) and removes any butter tubs, ice cream tubs (they have a lot of grandchildren and buy it by the gallon), and anything that doesn't have a lid.

I drink cheap coffee as well, which led to an interesting event. I had to take thermoluminescent samples from the side of a trench. I spent a few days trying to find a sample method that worked, and finally struck upon using a metal coffee can. I cut the top off with tin snips, which gave it a jagged, almost saw-toothed edge, and drilled into the side of the trench, then put some paper towels down as padding and taped the lid on. The lab commented that my samples were the easiest to identify--they smelled like coffee!

Gus Van Horn said...

That improvised sampler sounds neat -- and like something I'd do.

It also reminded me of a comment from a postdoc who worked with me for a time in grad school. After seeing me jury-rig something or other for an experiment enough times, she finally commented, "You'd do well on a desert island."

My favorite such contraption was when I made use of my home brewing knowledge to use a lagering thermostat and a cheap refrigerator to store sections. It was fine for our purposes and saved a few hundred bucks, IIRC, on a purpose-built refrigerator from a lab supply house.

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, you write, "The Folgers cans remind me: I may be a beer snob, but I drink the Budweiser of coffee. Amusingly, I used to have a neighbor who drinks Bud, but is a coffee snob."

Folgers is quite good for what it is; I'd rate it above Budweiser. On the other hand, Budweiser is drinkable in a pinch, unlike three other brands I could mention, so in that respect they are comparable. Also, my family used to look askance at my buying Folgers. I had some of their choice coffee when visiting, and it was typical of the coffee I avoid that smells right purty but tastes like lacquer had been added to it. I sometimes pay extra for more exotic coffee, but when I do, it doesn't taste like lacquer!

Gus Van Horn said...

I'll grant being hard on Folger's.

But Budweiser? Once in a blue moon, I find myself in a situation, like a party with a keg of the stuff. Like you, fellow beer snobs -- and even the late, great Michael Jackson, IIRC -- have credited it with being "drinkable," and yet...

Every time I try it, I remember why I never otherwise touch it, and why I was a teetotaler until a trip to Europe where I tasted a real beer for the first time, at the Hofbraeuhaus.

I just can't drink Bud.

Dinwar said...

I love the history of beer. It's so integrally tied to Western culture that in a lot of ways the study of beer IS the study of Western culture. One of the things I've found that annoys a lot of snobs is that small beer and cheep beer have as much a place in beer as any fancy stuff. It's beer for when you're working. If I'm doing yard work on a hot day I don't want something that's heavy or hoppy; I want something that's cold, has a enough alcohol to act as an anesthetic but not enough to make me silly, and is easy to drink. The good beer is for sitting around the fire telling stories after the work is done.

I agree on the coffee, Snedcat. I buy whatever's cheep and has a grind that works with my brewing method (french press or stovetop espresso maker). The flavor of the "good" coffee reminds me of chemical sumps in college. Most of the "good" coffees out there are, in my experience, for people who don't like coffee. After a certain point the coffee flavor is no longer present, so what's the point?

Gus Van Horn said...


Ah yes. There is indeed a place for what a brewer I fondly remember from Houston called "lawnmower beer. (Their take (scroll down) was a Koelsch.)

Agreed on certain high-priced coffees.