Plastics Industry’s Greenwashing Aggravates Environmental and Health Crises

Janine Jackson: Those of a certain age will remember a TV spot in which a Native American man — the actor was Italian-American, it turns out, but never mind — surveys a roadside full of discarded bottles and bags, and a single tear rolls down his cheek. Memorable and impressive, the spot did a couple of things: It located the responsibility for pollution at the level of the individual — the litterbug — and it suggested that the big problem with these plastic bags and bottles was their improper disposal, and not their production. But what we saw as a Public Service Announcement, and a fairly lofty one at that, was, in reality, more like an ad, intended to sell the public on a particular viewpoint, specifically to deflect growing contemporary concerns. The production of plastics has exploded since then, tons of it in the ocean and inside sea creatures, as well as inside us. And industry deflections about the environmental and health effects of plastics production and destruction continue apace — including, it seems, the idea of plastic recycling. Our next guest has been reporting this difficult set of issues. Sharon Lerner covers health and the environment for The Intercept, and is a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. She joins us now by phone from here in town. Welcome to CounterSpin, Sharon Lerner.

Sharon Lerner: Thanks for having me. Hello.

I have to start with the “Crying Indian,” not just because I’m a child of the ’70s, but I didn’t realize how emblematic it was of what’s been a continued strategy of plastic industries around the question of waste. I wonder if you could tell us a bit about the backstory on that ad, and the context in which it appeared?

So that ad ran in 1971, and it was put out by Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council. Keep America Beautiful is the group we think of as sort of a do-gooder group. Their mission, what they talk about, is keeping our public spaces clean and free of litter. But it turns out that the group itself was begun by the beverage industry, several soda companies, National Soft Drink Association, and it came at a time when there was the beginning of an awareness of the plastic pollution crisis on the part of the public. And it should be noted that the big plastics producers and users were actually aware of the fact that plastic was already accumulating in the ocean, and was quite an ecological hazard.

So that growing awareness helped spawn some protests in 1970 on the first Earth Day, and the folks who were concerned about growing waste — it wasn’t quite so much plastic at that time, it was mostly cans that were being used — but the whole idea of using disposable packaging, that you could have one drink of soda and then just throw out the thing that it came in, was really new. And already activists were becoming aware that, Wow, this crisis is going to affect us deeply. And they had a protest on the Coca-Cola company, and staged “ecology treks,” they called it, when they went to Coca-Cola’s headquarters with these non-returnable bottles, some of which were plastic, I think, and some, again, cans.

So here’s this sort of growing awareness of this problem, and in 1971, that comes out and really flips the whole frame, right. So what they do with that ad, and others before and after that really hit the same note, is they really squarely put the blame of waste on individuals, as opposed to the companies who produce the waste and profit from the products, and, not coincidentally, the same companies that are funding Keep America Beautiful, and funding the ads that are doing the shaming.

Yeah, it’s interesting, because, first of all, it shows that there’s been an awareness of the problem of plastic waste since there’s been plastics; it’s not something that snuck up on the industry — which I found kind of interesting. And then the idea that this ad, that I think many people thought of as, Golly, here’s the industry proactively engaging one of the downsides, potentially, of what they do, and the idea that it was in fact a very targeted intervention, was news, to me at least.

But beyond that, I would say that most people had no idea that it was coming from industry at all.

Right.

That message gives you this sense that, Oh, we’re just concerned citizens who really care about stopping trash. Well, in fact, it was coming from the companies that made that trash, and nobody had any idea, there was no reason to suspect, that it came from them at all. It very effectively makes people upset about the fact that we are littering and destroying our Earth. But what it does is leave the viewer thinking, I feel terrible about my role in that.

What it doesn’t do — and what was going on in the background, at the same time, the beverage industry was actively fighting these proposals: one, to ban the production of single-use containers back then, but also bottle bills, which was basically this effort to put some of the responsibility for recycling the containers back on to the companies that make them. And, generally speaking, these companies don’t want that responsibility, both because of the expense of it and because of the hassle of it.

So very consistently, over the decades, they have fought these bottle bills, and very successfully. And right around this 1971 ad, the lobbyists for the industry had effectively swatted down national legislation, or a proposal that would have banned, again, disposable containers, and would have put forward a bottle bill on a federal level.

Yeah, I almost skip over the fact that, of course, it was “Keep America Beautiful,” which no one was thinking of, really, as a front group, or thinking about front groups, at all, for industries. We saw it as just kind of consumers and concerned citizens, taking up the effort.

Well, we think of recycling as local, in some ways, I feel like that’s the association, when in fact it’s a big business which is of course international. And some of the realities that you and others have reported on, about the business of recycling, which is being presented to us as the answer — but the realities of the business of plastics recycling are heartbreaking, like the Indonesian islands where Coca-Cola has pushed their products, and they now are littering the ground. And then villagers burn that waste, literally poisoning themselves and the food chain, right?

Right. Yeah, and another very upsetting point here is that in many cases, especially when you’re talking about Coca-Cola in these remote islands, it is sometimes Coke itself, but it’s also sometimes bottled water. And many places don’t have potable water, and thus are literally forced to survive on this bottled water, which, in many cases, we’re talking about bottles that they very successfully get to these remote places, but then don’t successfully remove from these places. And then there’s also a lot of really good reporting on the fact that these companies actually drain aquifers, and then sell what ought to be a very public human resource back to people in plastic bottles, at expense, and sometimes expense that they can’t afford.

It’s very dystopian, and I wanted to say, there’s no hyperbole here: You wrote, “Plastic waste is now widely understood to be a cause of species extinction, ecological devastation and human health problems.” And given that it’s virtually all from oil and natural gas and coal, it also contributes to climate change, and it’s in that context that we’re talking about industry PR to convince people that recycling is sufficient.

I agree.

One of many things that I found upsetting in your piece from July was the way that the plastics industry is “gearing up for,” as you put it, “the fight of its life.” And, in fact, you were at an association conference in which the keynote came from an expert in actual warfare. What is that telling us?

Yes, I thought that was an interesting choice. No one explicitly explained why they made this choice. I mean, this was someone who had been the captain of a boat that was under attack. And he told the details of this brutal attack, about the USS Cole, and then talked about, basically, his success despite the adversity that he faced. He talked about, in the end, piloting his ship away, with the national anthem blaring, and going on to victory — basically a “hard-fought victory” is the way he described it.

And I think that the plastic industry very much does feel under assault right now. Really, there’s a growing awareness of how immense and terrible this problem is we’re all facing. And as you just laid out, it’s a health problem, it’s an environmental problem, it’s a racial justice problem at this point, because of the way it’s distributed throughout the country and the world.

So I think what they are saying is, We’re not going to just be cowed by this, and in fact, we’re going to continue to grow. And that is very much the expectation, when you look at the production figures, the anticipated production and sales of plastic, which have already been skyrocketing over the past few years, as single-use containers become more and more prevalent.

And I think what’s going to happen more and more is partly because of the very, very inexpensive availability of natural gas that is turned into ethylene and polyethylene; you’re really just going to have this increase in production, because they can. So they’re going to be showered with stories like mine that are pointing out what they’re doing, but, in the end, because they can make this very inexpensive product, and make so much money off it, there is the anticipation that they’re going to not just keep doing it, but keep growing really quickly.

They’re battening down the hatches to take on negative comments that come their way, and in this, they’ll be served by murkiness or vagueness. And I wondered if I could just ask a point of information: Much of the plastic waste that we read about, in landfills and in oceans, it is recyclable, right? We shouldn’t be confused by this difference between stuff that is nominally recyclable, and what’s actually happening to it.

Right. To go back to the point we were making before that, here is this battle. Well, the battle is being fought partly through legislation and lobbying and political contributions, but also very much through this PR we’ve been talking about. And it’s still the same double-edged strategy that we were seeing in the early 1970s, where you’re aggressively fighting to protect your profits and industry, while at the same time putting out of this greenwashing — really, it’s a great word for it — this spin on how you’re a caring company.

And this has been really amped up recently. If you look at all the big companies now, the plastic producers are making these pledges, and as you said, they’re coming out with, We have recyclable cups. And Starbucks was one, you know, No. 3 polluter, plastic polluter, in the country, I believe. And they came out with this huge, huge, patting-themselves-on-the-back launch of their “recyclable cup,” which is made from a form of plastic which is not actually recycled in much of the country. And what it did was it got rid of straws, which we all recognize is a very big problem, and replaced it with a lid that I guess you’re going to use without a straw. But it really doesn’t matter if it’s shaped like a straw or if it’s shaped like a lid; if it ends up in the ocean or landfill or being burned, it’s the same thing.

So the vast majority of all this plastic we’re talking about is recyclable. All the stuff that ends up in the oceans and being burned in landfills, is theoretically capable of, it could be repurposed into other products. But, in fact, that’s not really what we’re seeing. And so the vast majority of the more than 8 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced, about 80% has ended up in landfills, or scattered around the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s theoretically recyclable if it doesn’t actually end up getting recycled.

Your reporting also described some basic informational voids about not, for example, tracking or studying the additives that go into some recycled plastics. We’ve got children’s toys being sourced from recycled electronics that, hey, have heavy metals in them. And so there’s a whole lot of stuff that could be reported and revealed in that regard.

But I also want to say, if our real goal is to decrease plastic waste, and the harms of plastic waste, we do have some information about what works in that direction, don’t we?

I’m sure you’ve heard of Reduce, Reuse and Recycle, the sort of pyramid of ways to address this. And, unfortunately, “reduce” and “reuse” have sort of ended up getting shifted out of the conversation, and we end up talking all about recycling and not about the other things.

I think very much if we want to address the problem, we really, really have to address it at the level of production. And I also think that we need to incorporate the cost of collection and recycling into the price of production and the price of purchase. Which is to say, at this point, the responsibility for dealing with the problems caused by this are on the public, right, and not on the companies that produce, and profit in extreme rates, from plastic production; and we need to make that shift. That’s, I think, at the heart of what we need to do.

And, of course, we don’t need the vast majority of what we make now. About half of everything that’s produced right now is single-use plastic; things like clamshells to go over, like, a cupcake or a baked good or even, you know, they go around potatoes, and, you know, bananas, it’s ridiculous the amount of stuff that we don’t need that is being produced because it is profiting someone somewhere, and not the public.

I just wanted to ask you, finally, about media. The Guardian has a series, the “United States of Plastic,” and it has some pieces like “US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It Than Other Developed Countries,” which was interesting. But there’s a serious admixture of pieces like “How You’re Recycling Plastic Wrong, From Coffee Cups to Toothpaste”: Toothpaste tubes need special treatment.” “Those little arrows? They don’t mean anything.”

I always hear a kind of implied, “ya dummy,” after these sort of things: Refuse to get a lid on your coffee cup. And I know that it falls under “news you can use,” but I just feel like every media invocation to buy a bamboo toothbrush needs to come with some sort of reality check. I wonder what you think the role of the press is or can be here? What sort of reporting would you like to see more or less of?

Certainly my own inbox is deluged with, “Here is the product that you need to solve the problem,” and I don’t think, really, a product is going to do it. I mean, in terms of coverage, it’s really tricky with recycling, because recycling, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Recycling is a good thing, right, when it works. And the recycling, for instance, of aluminum cans has been very successful. Recycling of glass has been successful.

The problem is that recycling of plastic, this message has been so abused by companies that were basically trying to hide under this cover, that it becomes really complicated. I feel like that’s part of why my piece was too long, is because it is so very complicated. So I don’t think it’s wrong to encourage people to recycle; what I do think it’s wrong to miss the larger picture here, which is that the vast responsibility for this crisis belongs on the corporations that have created it.

And it is very hard to be a human being in our society right now, to eat and participate in the economy in any way, without being involved in plastic. You can try, and I certainly am trying myself, but it’s a struggle that can’t be solved by us, ultimately — us being the public, and not the producers of this stuff.

So I guess for journalists, it’s not one story; it’s a bunch of different stories.

Absolutely.

We’ve been speaking with reporter Sharon Lerner. You can find her work, including this critical piece, “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World,” online at TheIntercept.com. Sharon Lerner, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

And that’s it for CounterSpin for this week. CounterSpin is produced by FAIR, the national media watch group based in New York. The show is engineered by Erica Rosato. I’m Janine Jackson. Thanks for listening to CounterSpin.