Plastic Wars

With the plastic industry expanding like never before, and the crisis of ocean pollution growing, FRONTLINE and NPR investigate the fight over the future of plastics.

AIRED: March 31, 2020 | 0:54:22

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> The world is flooded with plastic garbage.

>> In this state, none of this is recyclable.

>> NARRATOR: Have efforts to solve the plastics problem

made it worse?

>> Do you think the industry used recycling

to sell more plastic?

>> Absolutely.

>> NARRATOR: "Frontline" and NPR investigate

the battle over plastics.

>> We have to manage the waste right.

We have to fix this.

>> NARRATOR: And what's at stake.

>> For the oil and gas industry, plastic is their lifeline.

This is the big war.

>> NARRATOR: Now, "Plastic Wars."

♪ ♪

(water burbling)

>> LAURA SULLIVAN: In 2015, a marine biologist came across

a sea turtle in distress.

>> Oh.

>> I don't want to pull it too hard.

>> Yeah, I mean, it's bleeding already.

Oh, poor baby.

I'm sorry.

(bleep) (bleep) Christ.

That is plastico.

Oh, man.

>> That's plastic.

>> Don't tell me it's a freaking straw.

>> It's just freaking...

>> SULLIVAN: Her video of the encounter quickly went viral.

>> This poor sea turtle.

>> SULLIVAN: It would attract more than 35 million views.

>> ...became a rallying cry for action.

>> SULLIVAN: And focused public attention on a growing problem.

>> That turtle video certainly did have an impact.

>> Plastic pollution: a planetary crisis.

>> SULLIVAN: Plastics in the oceans have been building up

for decades.

>> In an underwater paradise, a plastic nightmare.

>> SULLIVAN: Recurring images of dead whales...

>> 80 plastic bags found inside the whale.

>> SULLIVAN: Bloated seabirds... >> Oh.

>> SULLIVAN: ...and littered waterways have fueled

a global anti-plastic movement.

>> Enemy number one-- the plastic straw.

>> Many U.S. cities are taking steps to ban

plastic grocery bags...

>> Save our Earth before it's too late!

>> SULLIVAN: And yet, despite the backlash,

the industry that makes plastic is expanding.

>> The start of construction on

that multibillion-dollar plastics plant...

>> SULLIVAN: Plentiful supplies of natural gas are driving down

the cost of making plastic.

The U.S. is now one of the world's largest

plastic producers.

>> It's going to be the largest plant of its kind in the world.

>> SULLIVAN: And industry is investing tens of billions

of dollars in new plastic plants.

>> Construction will eventually employ 6,000 people.

>> SULLIVAN: By 2050, it's estimated that global production

of plastic will triple.

>> A plastic boom.

>> There's going to be more plastic than ever on the face...

>> SULLIVAN: I wanted to understand how we came

to this moment, how the plastic industry has been able to thrive

all these years in the face of a growing crisis,

and opposition that's now stronger than it's ever been.

♪ ♪

♪ ♪

For decades, the national response

to the growing plastic-waste problem

has focused on one solution: recycling.

And few places have pursued recycling more aggressively

than Oregon.

What we put in our recycling bins ends up in sorting plants

like this one, outside of Portland.

>> We're actually very full right now.

>> SULLIVAN: This is, this is all coming in fresh.

This is the first unload, right?

>> Yeah.

So that's what it looks like when it comes in.

>> SULLIVAN: Vinod Singh is the outreach manager

at Far West Recycling.

>> SULLIVAN: Every single piece of this has to be sorted

in some way...

>> Yeah, you have to separate paper

and then the metals and then the plastics.

>> SULLIVAN: There are a lot of different kinds of plastics

that have to be sorted.

>> And what we're doing here is we're sorting it out

into the milk jugs, the natural HDPE, the pigmented HDPE,

P.E.T. water bottles...

>> SULLIVAN: They're looking for plastics.

>> Yeah-- so all the plastic will come off

before the line ends.

>> SULLIVAN: Some items, like soda bottles and milk jugs,

are easier to recycle, so there's money to be made.

>> So, this is all plastic that has a home.

>> SULLIVAN: But most other types of plastic

are technically difficult and often costly to recycle.

And that makes them nearly impossible to sell.

So they keep piling up.

This is plastic that has no home.

>> This is plastic that has no home, so it's your clamshells,

Ziploc bags, film, a CD, a food, like, a food wrapper.

>> SULLIVAN: In the business, they're called mixed plastics.

>> Now, you're getting more mixed plastics, like pouches,

and everything comes in a, in a clamshell now.

>> SULLIVAN: So, if somebody throws their Tide bottle

into their bin, that's a win. >> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: But what you're saying is you're seeing

more and more of this stuff. >> Packaging is evolving.

>> SULLIVAN: Most mixed plastics end up in a place like this.

>> What you're seeing happening right now is,

that's a full-size, that's a, probably a 53-foot trailer.

>> SULLIVAN: In Medford, Oregon, Rogue Disposal's landfill

takes about a hundred loads of trash a day.

And more and more of it is plastic.

>> Plastic films, plastic bags, the plastic wrapping

that comes around a lot of packaged goods--

that all goes into the garbage.

It's margarine tubs, clamshells, deli containers.

Until there is a viable option for recycling those things,

we should be putting it in a landfill.

>> SULLIVAN: But that's not what we've been told for decades,

as the things we buy have been increasingly packaged

in plastic.

Are you David? I'm Laura Sullivan.

>> Very nice to meet you.

>> SULLIVAN: Nice to meet you, too.

>> Welcome to Portland.

>> SULLIVAN: David Allaway is a senior policy analyst

with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

So much of all this stuff in the grocery store

is plastic now.

>> It's really inexpensive.

>> SULLIVAN: It's an easy way to package it.

>> It is, and it performs, it performs very well.

It has really good engineering qualities,

it protects food very well.

>> SULLIVAN: This is my basic question,

because it seems like everybody is buying lettuce

in a box now.

Is this recyclable?

>> In this state, none of this is, none of this is recyclable.

>> SULLIVAN: Okay, what about all these?

This is everywhere in every supermarket.

>> In Oregon, again, there are no curbside programs

that would accept any of these tubs.

>> SULLIVAN: Okay, so, this is classic,

when, a lot of Americans do this,

like what you're doing right now.

>> Yep, that's right. >> SULLIVAN: We flip it over.

What are we looking at?

>> At the bottom of all these plastic containers

is this little chasing arrow,

the little recycling symbol, with a number.

And the number, there's some words, it says,

"1 P.E.T.E."

This package here is technically recyclable.

You could recycle this in a lab. >> SULLIVAN: Okay.

>> But it's not economical to recycle it,

given the current economics of recycling.

>> SULLIVAN: But if it's not happening in Oregon,

it makes me wonder what's going on in the rest of the country.

>> Yeah, I would, I would say that this package

is rarely recycled in most parts in the country.

>> SULLIVAN: Yeah.

>> Can I give you another example here?

>> SULLIVAN: Yes, please.

>> So, let's take a look at these blueberries.

>> SULLIVAN: Okay. >> This is classic.

And if you turn this over, you see the chasing arrows.

On the bottom, it says, "100% recyclable."

There is no program in Oregon

that wants this in the curbside mix.

But more than half of all people that live in the Portland area

believe this belongs in the curbside container.

>> SULLIVAN : Well, it says it's recyclable.

>> It says it's recyclable.

It has the recycling logo.

It's very confusing to a lot of people.

>> SULLIVAN: This confusion about what can and can't be

recycled, and where plastic ultimately ends up,

is no accident.

Over the past year, we've been investigating the plastic crisis

and found that many of the problems we face today

were set in motion decades ago by the very companies

who make plastic in the first place.

♪ ♪

One of those companies is DuPont,

and on the grounds of the first DuPont family home,

I found the Hagley Library.

(old movie score playing)

It holds one of the world's largest collections

of industrial history.

>> This is an American city, a real community of homes

and homemakers like thousands of others across the nation.

We call it Plasticstown, U.S.A.

>> SULLIVAN: I'd come to see what its archive could tell me

about the evolution of the plastic problem.

>> The table is set with polyethylene products, too.

>> SULLIVAN: America's postwar boom presented

endless opportunities for this new durable,

lightweight material.

>> Modern-day miracles that were made

with the help of petrochemicals.

>> SULLIVAN: From packaging to clothing to home furnishings...

>> Very durable.

>> SULLIVAN: Plastic's wide-ranging applications...

>> Glassine, polyethylene, Mylar...

>> SULLIVAN: ...promised a new world through chemistry.

>> Step into the world of manmade materials

that take up where nature left off.

>> The thing that made them unique was the ability

to do more with just a little bit of material,

to make things that we used lighter and more efficient.

So, plastic came to be used in many applications

because it performed better.

>> That was not a trick.

>> It did a good job of doing what it was asked to do.

It made life more efficient and easier.

>> (chanting): Save our Earth!

>> SULLIVAN: But by 1970, the plastic industry would have

to confront the turbulent times

of America's environmental awakening.

>> One in every ten Americans took part in rallies...

>> SULLIVAN: Earth Day was one of the largest mass protests

in U.S. history.

>> Oh, Earth Day was profound in terms of people waking up

to the fact that we live on a finite planet.

And there was a lot of concern about the trend

that was happening towards the more throwaway,

disposable lifestyle.

(dramatic music playing)

>> SULLIVAN: In response, many companies,

including plastic makers, and even some environmentalists,

got behind an iconic ad campaign

that focused attention on the public's role.

>> And I remember being a kid and watching those ads,

the most famous one with the crying Indian.

>> Some people have a deep, abiding respect

for the natural beauty that was once this country.

>> He was actually Italian, dressed up like an Indian,

but the fake crying Indian, the most famous one,

ends with this very dramatic sentence where they say...

>> People start pollution.

People can stop it.

>> People all around the country bought that line

and thought it was our responsibility

to take care of litter.

>> Americans discard more trash than any other country

in the world.

>> SULLIVAN: While the efforts to change consumer behavior

helped clean up the more visible litter problem,

they did little to address the root cause...

>> What makes our lives convenient is burying us.

>> SULLIVAN: The unchecked growth in household waste.

>> A barge filled with garbage is causing

quite an international stink.

>> Loaded with more than 3,000 tons of waste...

>> SULLIVAN: By 1987, a wandering barge

called the Mobro became an emblem of the growing crisis.

>> Greenpeace went and climbed aboard it

and took a huge banner that we put on it.

We said, "Next time, try recycling."

It really became a metaphor of,

"We are bumping up against limits here.

We cannot keep just continuing this mindless consumerism,

mindless consumption, and dump it somewhere else."

>> American has a garbage problem too long ignored...

>> SULLIVAN: At Hagley, we found a collection

of internal plastic industry documents...

Thank you.

(voiceover): ...about this period of time,

when the industry was in the crosshairs

of the environmental movement,

and plastics were under attack.

As we continued reporting, we found even more

internal documents and court filings,

and spoke with over a dozen industry insiders,

including three top executives

who represented the big plastic producers

and agreed to talk publicly for the first time.

Back then, one of the vice presidents

at the Society of the Plastics Industry was Lew Freeman.

He now heads a local environmental coalition,

but he remembers a pivotal board meeting in the late '80s,

when the industry was worried about its public image.

>> The vice president of the DuPont Company pulled me aside

and said, "You, you guys better get up to Wilmington.

There's dissatisfaction about

what's going on with the solid-waste issue."

We took a trek up to Wilmington, and this one DuPont executive,

he said, "I think if we had $5 million"--

which seemed like a lot of money then.

>> SULLIVAN: Five million?

>> "If we had $5 million, we could, we could,

we could solve this problem."

>> SULLIVAN: They created the

Council for Solid Waste Solutions,

drawn from their ranks of big oil and petrochemical companies

that made plastic, like Amoco, Chevron, Dow, and Exxon.

The group had a plan and turned to a veteran of the industry,

Ron Liesemer, to execute it.

>> They wanted to know, was I interested in being the guy

who actually made recycling happen across the U.S.?

>> SULLIVAN: I mean, you got handed this task...

>> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: recycle plastic in the United States.

>> In the United States.

Literally me. I had no staff.

But I had millions of dollars to do what I felt was necessary.

>> In a highly controversial action,

one county in New York State has voted to ban

all packaging made of two kinds of plastic.

>> SULLIVAN: It was a critical moment.

A growing backlash was threatening

the future of plastic.

>> In what may be part of a national trend,

the City Council of Saint Paul, Minnesota,

voted to outlaw the use of polystyrene plastics.

>> SULLIVAN: Liesemer was sent to Minnesota

on an urgent mission.

Brand-name companies that used plastic were facing bans

on their products.

>> There was an attitude that if your product was not recycled,

then it should not be in the marketplace.

So, it was up to us in the plastics industry

to solve this problem so that they could continue

to package their products in plastic.

>> SULLIVAN: And Liesemer found a solution.

To appease government officials,

the industry funded a local recycling pilot project.

>> The industry attitude was,

"We'll set this up and get it going,

but if the public wants it,

they are going to have to pay for it."

>> SULLIVAN: The plastic bans were averted.

Do you think that they took a lesson away

from how to fight the bans? >> Oh, yes.

It was, "We need to be doing things."

>> SULLIVAN: Like what?

>> Don't wait until legislation appears.

>> SULLIVAN: You're saying pre-empt it.

>> Yes, do it first. And we did.

>> SULLIVAN: Did you feel like they cared more about

selling plastic than they did about making recycling work?

>> Making recycling work was a way to keep their products

in the marketplace.

>> SULLIVAN: It was a way to sell plastic.

>> Yes.

It's a win-win situation.

You get recycling going, that has its benefits,

and it improves the image of the material.

>> SULLIVAN: The industry found another way to promote plastic

using recycling.

Responding to pressure from states and environmentalists

to better identify the many types of plastic,

it created a code to tell them apart.

That code was a numbering system put inside the well-known symbol

for recycling, the chasing arrows.

The problem, recyclers said, is that it left the impression

that all those kinds of plastics were actually being recycled.

Coy Smith ran recycling centers in Southern California

in the 1980s and early '90s.

All right, there you are.

>> During that time, the plastics industry,

they went around to states,

and they convinced those states to pass laws,

and they did this very quietly.

They passed laws that required that symbol with the number

on it be put on plastic containers sold in that state.

I mean, for most states, they did it in,

recyclers didn't even know it happened.

And the next thing you know,

all the plastic containers have these symbols on them.

>> SULLIVAN: Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

>> It's a bad thing. >> SULLIVAN: Why?

>> Because the average person saw the symbol,

they know the symbol, and said, "Well, it's recyclable, right?"

>> SULLIVAN: "It's got three arrows."

>> Well, like, all of a sudden, our own customers,

they would bring it in and not only say it has the triangle,

but it would, they would flat-out say,

"It says it's recyclable right on it."

And I'd be, like, "I can tell you I can't give this away.

There's no one that would even take it

if I paid for them to take it."

That's how unrecyclable it was.

>> SULLIVAN: Stuck with plastics they couldn't sell,

Smith and other recyclers met with representatives

from the plastic industry.

Do you see the one...

>> Yeah, there's my name, right there.

>> SULLIVAN: And came up with a report identifying

key problems with the numbering code.

>> Some firms are using it as a green marketing tool.

"The code is being misused."

>> SULLIVAN: The plastic industry

that you were working with agreed to these

and signed onto this report. >> They did.

>> SULLIVAN: So they knew that these problems existed.

>> They knew these problems existed, absolutely.

>> SULLIVAN: Recyclers and the plastic makers

couldn't agree on how to change the code.

Industry would only switch to a triangle,

which recyclers said was too similar to the chasing arrows.

Industry wouldn't even consider, say, no triangle,

or a circle, or, I mean...

>> They didn't want to go anywhere near no triangle.

We said, "Go to a square, go to some other symbol,

just not the triangle," and they, they said, "No."

Coming up with ways to have their product perceived

as more recyclable and more environmental

makes their product look better.

They want to sell more plastic containers.

>> SULLIVAN: Recyclers also appealed

to government regulators, but they sided with industry.

They said that the chasing arrows symbol was okay,

as long as it was small and on the bottom of packaging.

What if it's got a chasing arrow sign on it,

and you think that means it's getting recycled?

>> Uh, that, that was one of the comments early,

that it implied that those products were being recycled.

That wasn't the intent. >> SULLIVAN: Were they?

Were they misleading the public?

>> I don't think so, because when I looked at them,

at the arrows, I thought,

"This is a way to identify the products so that recycling,

the early stages of recycling can take place."

>> SULLIVAN: But even as Liesemer and his colleagues

were publicly promoting recycling,

privately, the industry had long expressed doubt

it was ever going to happen on a broad scale.

One internal document from the Society of the Plastics Industry

cautioned, "The techniques of cleaning and separating

the mixed plastics... has not been developed

for large-scale economic application."

Another said, "There are no effective market mechanisms

for mixed plastic."

And this document was candid: "There is serious doubt"

widespread plastic recycling "can ever be made viable

on an economic basis."

How could they go into all of these communities

and tell people, "You just have to recycle,"

when they knew there were so many problems

and so many hurdles?

>> Some were very skeptical but felt they had to do it.

I think others were, were more hopeful.

There was never an enthusiastic belief

that recycling was ultimately going to work

in a significant way.

>> SULLIVAN: Freeman's boss at the time, Larry Thomas,

the head of the Society of the Plastics Industry,

was blunt about it.

>> I was the front man for the plastics industry.

No getting around it.

>> SULLIVAN: Thomas wouldn't sit down for an on-camera interview,

but agreed to talk on the phone.

>> If the public thinks the recycling is working,

then they're not going to be as concerned about the environment.

I think they knew that the infrastructure wasn't there

to really have recycling amount to a whole lot.

>> SULLIVAN: Thomas wrote a confidential memo in 1989

about the precarious position the industry was in.

"The image of plastics among consumers is deteriorating

at an alarmingly fast pace," it says.

"We're approaching a 'point of no return.'

Business is being lost.

Analysts are beginning to take notice.

We must immediately undertake a major program

of unprecedented proportions to reverse

this fast-moving tidal wave of growing

negative public perception."

So the big plastic producers came up

with a multimillion-dollar solution...

>> When you look at plastic...

>> SULLIVAN: Advertising.

>> ...helps things stay fresh and safe and light.

>> It spent most of its money,

millions and millions of dollars, on advertising...

>> Plastic also saves energy.

>> To tout the virtues of plastics

as a way of heading off the criticism

the industry was experiencing.

>> When we started that advertising program,

I think the image of plastics was in the mid-30s--

you know, 30, 35% favorability.

>> SULLIVAN: That's pretty low.

>> If you're in politics, you're in deep trouble

with a 35% rating.

>> Presenting the possibilities of plastics.

>> When they were running the advertising on television,

they were not about how plastics can be recycled,

but all the wonderful things that plastics bring to us.

>> Plastics make it possible.

>> The fact that you now don't have to worry about

dropping a shampoo bottle that was made out of glass

on the bathroom floor because it's plastic.

And there's nothing wrong in an industry promoting

those kind of things, but that's not addressing the problem

that people are criticizing you about.

>> SULLIVAN: And it worked? >> And it worked.

>> SULLIVAN: (chuckles)

'Cause you went from 30% favorability...

>> From let's say mid-30s to mid-60s.

>> SULLIVAN: Favorability. >> Mm-hmm.

(commercial music playing)

>> Glass? That's the past.

ThermaSet is the future.

>> SULLIVAN: Over the next several decades...

>> What once was glass will soon be plastic.

>> SULLIVAN: Plastic became the unrivaled material of choice

for consumers.

>> Busy lifestyles and a growing urban population

mean an increase in demand for food that is fresh...

>> SULLIVAN: Plastic sales exploded.

>> Convenient...

>> SULLIVAN: From 1990 to 2010, production more than doubled.

>> And fast.

Flexible packaging has become part of our daily lives.

>> SULLIVAN: And with all that new plastic came mountains

of plastic waste.

>> Here we are at our GDB South Brunswick facility.

>> SULLIVAN: South, okay.

In New Jersey, I met a man who built

a $180 million recycling business off of that waste.

>> Use and discard, and then this is where it all ends up.

>> SULLIVAN: Sunil Bagaria is national chairman

of the plastics division for ISRI,

the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries.

His company buys throwaway plastic

from some of the largest big-box stores in the U.S.

Oh, my God, what is this?

>> This is just hangers, one type of plastic.

>> SULLIVAN (gasps): Why are these all here?

>> Well, you would imagine that when you, you know,

you take a garment off the rack and take it

to the checkout counter... >> SULLIVAN: Yes.

>> Then this should go back.

>> SULLIVAN: That they would just reuse it.

>> Yeah, but they said, "Oh, you know what,

we'll just buy new hangers.

In the meantime, let me just recycle this."

>> SULLIVAN: Oh, boy.

This hanger gets used one time.

>> One time.

>> SULLIVAN: Starting in the late '90s,

Bagaria and other recycling brokers

had a one-word answer to the growing plastic-waste problem:


>> I mean, China did a big one for the recycling industry,

I must say. >> SULLIVAN: Yeah.

>> You know, because, as long as it remotely resembled plastic,

they wanted it. >> SULLIVAN: They would take it.

>> Yeah-- polystyrene, P.E.T., PVC, polypropylene.

Because that's how big a demand of manufacturing

was there in China.

They wanted raw material.

"Give me raw material," that's all they wanted.

>> SULLIVAN: How long did that go on for?

>> Almost 20 years.

But later, we surely realized that there was always

another aspect of what was going on in China.

>> SULLIVAN: Which was what?

>> They would just take, like, the low-hanging fruits.

>> SULLIVAN: The good stuff.

>> Good stuff, easy to do. >> SULLIVAN: Yeah.

>> And the remaining plastic waste will then be disposed of.

>> SULLIVAN: Eventually, the reality of what was happening

in China became clear.

>> These Chinese children spend most of their waking hours

between plumes of smoke and mountains of plastic.

>> SULLIVAN: And in 2018, China stopped taking

imported plastic waste.

>> Now the country is trying to clean up its image.

>> Because we thought that it was getting recycled

gave us the freedom-- "Okay, no problem,

let's, let me continue to use it.

It is ultimately getting recycled.

What is the, what is the problem?"

We never asked the question,

"Are they doing it the, the right way?

Are we damaging the environment more in the name of recycling?"

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: When the recycling market in China went away,

Bagaria and other brokers scrambled to find

a new home for their plastic.

And countries like Indonesia saw a business opportunity.

Last fall, I met up with Bagaria there.

He was checking out a recycling company

that he sells his plastic to. >> This is his factory.

>> SULLIVAN: This is your factory.

>> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: Bagaria had come to make sure

his plastic was actually being recycled

and turned into tiny pellets that are used

to make new plastic products.

>> This is your pellets.

>> SULLIVAN: Ah, there they are.

>> This is the holding tank.

>> SULLIVAN: Hot pellets.

How much responsibility do you feel like you have

over what's happening here?

>> Oh, we, we are the shipper of the scrap.

It all originates with us.

We could ship scrap and hope that it is being recycled

in the way it should be.

Or the other way is, come here, see how serious he is

about doing it the right way.

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: But there are growing concerns here

that a lot of plastic waste is not being handled the right way,

and Indonesian officials are trying to prevent what happened

in China from happening here.

Is this one of the big priorities here?

>> Yeah.

(speaking local language)

>> SULLIVAN: So, contaminated plastic trash

is as big a problem for you guys as narcotics and drugs

coming into the country? >> Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Last year, customs found that half the containers

of plastic waste they inspected...

>> Sir, sir, can you explain little bit?

>> SULLIVAN: ...were contaminated with trash

and plastic that can't be recycled.

♪ ♪

We wanted to see for ourselves what was happening

to the plastic coming here.

Oh, it's here, right there? >> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: That opening?

One recycling company here caught our attention...

Yeah, PT New Harvestindo.

(voiceover): Based on Indonesian customs documents we'd obtained.

191 containers being held right now.

Let's just go knock and see if maybe someone will talk to us.

(voiceover): With the help of an Indonesian journalist,

we tried to speak to someone at New Harvestindo.

But we were told there was no one available.

>> We need to confirm...

(speaking local language)

Is the data that we have is correct or not?

>> SULLIVAN: Can we come in and look?

(journalist speaking local language)

(guard responds)

>> SULLIVAN: Looks like a lot of shipping containers.

>> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: I think we're in the right place.

>> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: The customs document we had said the company

was getting plastic from the U.S.

With no one from New Harvestindo willing to speak to us,

we still wanted to know what they were doing

with all those bales of plastic waste

and whether it was all being recycled.

We'd heard about an environmental activist

who's been tracking what happens to the plastic

coming into Indonesia.


I met up with Yuyun Ismawati in a small rural community nearby.

This place, it's huge.

>> Yeah. It's huge and very wide.

You can see from that corner

to the end of that valley over there.

>> SULLIVAN: What's it like to look at a field this size

and see it covered in plastic trash?

>> I can show you the pictures.

>> SULLIVAN: Oh, really, you took pictures?

>> Yes.

>> SULLIVAN: Yeah, I'd love to see that, yeah.

We took a seat by the side of the road,

and she showed me pictures she'd collected

of plastic that locals said had been dumped here.

>> The sacks are from a plastic company.

When I came here in June, I asked them,

where did they get this from?

And then they said it's from Harvest, they call it.

>> SULLIVAN: Harvest.

(voiceover): Waste pickers would look for plastics of value,

and the rest would be burned.

>> So, this is how it looked like when they burn it.

>> SULLIVAN: So it's like a big, sort of a big fire on this pit.

>> Yeah, yeah.

People with respiratory problem, they really get affected.

And some children got hospitalized.

(horn honks)

>> SULLIVAN: After the community complained to the government

about the burning, the dumping stopped here.

I mean, how, how big a problem

do you think these kinds of dumping grounds

are in Indonesia? >> Big.

They are everywhere around this area.

Here, the recycling system that we have at the moment

is not really recycling, because some part of it exported,

being exported all over the world, to be "recycled."

>> SULLIVAN: Yeah.

>> But you never know whether it's really recycled,

being recycled overseas or not.

There is no proof.

>> SULLIVAN: We reached out to the two recycling companies

known locally as Harvest.

New Harvestindo still wouldn't respond to us,

and the other company denied it was behind the dumping.

But later that night, on a back street,

I met up with a New Harvestindo worker who agreed to talk to me

about what the company does with its plastic waste.

Hi. >> Hi...

>> SULLIVAN: Thank you so much for coming to meet me.

(voiceover): As long as we didn't disclose his identity.

When you get a bale of plastic, how much of that bale is plastic

that the company wants, and how much of it is stuff

that is just plastic that you're not going to do anything with?

>> (speaking local language):

>> SULLIVAN: What do you do with the rest of it?

>> SULLIVAN: How long has that been going on for?

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: He told me he could take me to a place

where the company had recently been dumping plastic.

After a 30-minute drive, we reached a quiet neighborhood

with an area hidden from the road.

The smell of burnt plastic was in the air.

And all around, there were sacks of plastic and big piles, too.

This is from Purchase, New York.

This is totally American.

This is from California.

This is a pile of U.S. recycling.

(voiceover): New Harvestindo eventually got back to us

and denied it was responsible for doing anything

that damaged the environment.

It said in an email that it had a comprehensive system

to handle plastic waste, and it follows all Indonesian laws

and regulations.

The company has not been charged with any wrongdoing

related to dumping.

>> In last 20 years, we've seen more environmental degradations

and environmental problems in Indonesia

because we are struggling to, to clean up the modern debris

and modern litter in Indonesia.

The additional burden of waste from overseas,

I don't know how we are going to handle it.

>> SULLIVAN: You're saying you've got plenty as it is.

>> Yes, because we, we are struggling to handle

our own waste.

>> SULLIVAN: A lot of that waste is ending up in the ocean.

One study estimates that 60% of ocean plastic comes from Asia.

What do you think Americans need to know?

>> Americans need to know that your waste ended up here.

And the consumption and lifestyle that you have,

I think it's, you have to rethink,

because we have to reduce the amount of plastics that we,

that we produce at the moment.

>> Save our Earth before it's too late!

>> SULLIVAN: That message is reinvigorating a backlash

against plastic, the likes of which the industry

hasn't seen for decades.

>> I can talk loud.

>> SULLIVAN: It's facing opposition to the construction

of new plants.

>> Everybody up here said they don't want the plant.

There shouldn't be any more talk about it.

>> As of today, plastic bags are banned in Jersey City.

>> SULLIVAN: And plastic bans are spreading

across the country.

>> This is our moment, California.

Let's get these bills passed.

Let's do right by our future.

>> SULLIVAN: A major showdown is shaping up in California.

The legislature wants to impose new fees on plastic makers

and restrict single-use plastics.

>> This is a big moment.

>> SULLIVAN: This is big moment.

>> Yeah, so, if the California market changes,

we know it's going to put pressure on kind of,

the kind of products that are out there.

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: Amid the backlash,

I headed to the Texas Gulf Coast,

where oil and gas companies are under pressure

from climate change and increasingly turning

to plastics, now their biggest growth market.

We reached out to more than a dozen major plastic makers.

The only one that would sit down with us was Chevron Phillips.

Jim Becker is the vice president of sustainability.

You've seen California, the legislation...

>> Yeah, yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: Some bans across the country,

and a lot of targets on single-use plastic.

>> Uh-huh, yeah, our view is,

you have to be very careful with that,

'cause sometimes the substitute products can have

a bigger environmental impact than the thing you are banning.

>> SULLIVAN: Right.

>> So, we don't think banning

these products is necessarily the, the right way to go.

>> SULLIVAN: What does Chevron Phillips want to see happen?

>> We support, actually, the A.C.C. goals--

American Chemistry Council. >> SULLIVAN: Yeah.

>> Goals of getting plastic waste out of landfills by,

I think, the date is 2040.

>> SULLIVAN: Chevron Phillips would like to see all of that

plastic recycled back to make new plastic things?

>> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: How, how do you get it to a place

where 100% of this plastic getting recycled?

How do you get there?

>> Much more education needs to happen...

>> SULLIVAN: Yeah. >> ...on how to recycle.

You also have to really build up the infrastructure

for collection.

We're going to have to invest in innovation,

because some of these technologies

still need to be further developed.

>> SULLIVAN: If the oil industry is able to get 100% of,

of the material recycled... >> Yeah.

>> SULLIVAN: Doesn't that affect the bottom line?

>> Yes, it would, it would, but the alternative is,

having plastic waste in the environment.

We don't want that.

>> SULLIVAN: You think that the company feels so strongly

that it is willing to make less money?

>> I think that's true. >> SULLIVAN: Wow.

>> I guess I think of it more as an investment

in managing plastic waste.

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: Once again, the industry is pushing recycling.

Today, its main lobbying group

is the American Chemistry Council, and until recently,

its vice president of plastics was Steve Russell.

You fundamentally think that in the United States,

recycling could ramp up to a capacity to handle

the vast majority of plastic that's being produced?

>> So, I understand that there's a lot of skepticism around that,

because the systems today have not kept pace.

Our system is woefully inadequate,

and it needs dramatic investment.

It needs improvement.

But the proof here is the dramatic amount of investment

that's happening right now.

Our member companies, SABIC and Shell and LyondellBasell,

all of whom have made major announcements

in traditional and advanced recycling

to begin to intervene in that space in order

to bring their scale, their technical know-how,

and their capacity to start providing products

that are based on waste...

>> SULLIVAN: But you're talking about a couple of companies.

There's also an entire industry that's going to triple

production by 2050.

>> Mm-hmm.

>> SULLIVAN: How are those two things going to meet

anywhere in the middle?

>> It's not going to happen this month

or by the end of the year, but we're moving now.

Old types of recycling need to be modernized,

and new types of recycling need to be brought on board.

The good news is they're coming.

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: Back in Oregon, I found one

of these new technologies.

In South Portland, the plastic industry was showcasing

a demonstration project.

>> Has everybody got their gear?

>> SULLIVAN: And on the day I stopped by,

local lawmakers had been invited in to hear about the benefits

of a new sorting machine that industry says will make

recycling plastic more economical.

>> If you want to step up, up above,

you can see the machine in action.

>> SULLIVAN: One of the sponsors

was the American Chemistry Council.

>> The idea behind that particular facility is if,

if we improve the way that, that recyclables move down

the conveyor belt, right, so they get separated,

we're going to create better, cleaner streams

of like materials.

When we do that, we end up with bales that are more easy to sell

and that are more easy for consumer-goods companies

to incorporate into their packaging.

>> SULLIVAN: But as we continued our reporting in Oregon,

we heard about a surprisingly similar effort that took place

more than 25 years ago, at a recycling company 50 miles away

called Garten Services.

>> We're going into the office.

I've got a couple of newspaper articles

I want to show you from the past.

>> SULLIVAN: The plastic industry had brought

a demonstration project here in 1994.

>> The Garten Foundation of Salem

unveiled a new sorting machine that may change the way

we recycle forever.

>> This million-dollar plastic sorting system in Salem

is the first of its kind in the world.

>> So here, we've collected some old newspaper articles

from 1994.

>> SULLIVAN: Will Posegate is the chief operating officer

of Garten.

>> I mean, it says, "Sorts out the problem."

>> SULLIVAN: A sorting...

>> A sorting machine, that's right.

>> SULLIVAN: You got this from...

>> From the Plastics Council.

>> SULLIVAN: The Plastics...

>> They wanted us to sort plastics,

when people thought plastics might be starting

to be a problem.

>> Today, the American Plastics Council unveiled the machine.

>> They say residents will put all their plastic containers

in one bag.

>> It just keeps getting better, doesn't it?

>> SULLIVAN: What, what happened to it?

>> Years later, we, it, we shut it down,

because there was no way to make money at it.

And we sold that $1.5 million machine for scrap.

>> SULLIVAN: You sold the machine for scrap.

>> For scrap, that's right.

It didn't make any sense.

And I'm afraid that that same

thing is happening right now.

This is the plastic that nobody wants.

The whole idea about, "Oh, just sort better, it'll be great.

Let's make more single-use plastics"--

don't buy into that.

Not a good idea for the environment,

not a good idea for the Earth, not a good idea for your wallet.

>> SULLIVAN: You can't sort your way out of this.

>> No, no, period.

>> SULLIVAN: It all made me wonder whether

the plastic industry is just recycling old ideas.

>> They said I couldn't dream.

Called me a piece of trash and swore that's all I'd ever be.

>> SULLIVAN: Like in the '90s,

the industry has been spending money on ads...

>> And now I'm what I've always wanted to be.

>> SULLIVAN: ...encouraging consumers to recycle.

>> Remember, a lot of the plastic packaging

that you have in your kitchen is recyclable.

>> Smoke jumping is the pinnacle of wildland firefighting.

>> SULLIVAN: And touting the virtues of plastic.

>> We're covered in plastic-based gear

from head to toe.

(commercial music playing)

(commercial music playing)

>> This is the world we see.

>> Let's be the ones...

>> That came together to change the world.

>> SULLIVAN: What do you think?

>> Déjà vu all over again.

>> SULLIVAN: Why do you say that?

Tell me about that.

>> This is the same kind of thinking that ran

in the, in the '90s.

>> SULLIVAN: What do you think the messaging is here?

>> It's showing the people picking up the litter.

That kind of implies that

that's where the responsibility lay.

I think the chemical industry,

and the plastics industry specifically,

need to take very seriously this reaction that's going on.

I don't think this kind of advertising is,

is helpful to them at all.

>> Lately, there's been a lot of talk about how plastics impact

our lives, for better or worse.

>> SULLIVAN: The reality is, for all the ads and promises

over the years, it's estimated that no more than ten percent

of plastic has ever been recycled.

And the guy industry tapped decades ago

to get recycling going isn't surprised.

I showed Ron Liesemer industry reports we found

dating as far back as the 1970s.

And this one talks about the cost of separating plastics

from other trash, there're various types of plastics,

and that the cost of new plastic is so low

that sorting and reprocessing used plastic

can't be justified economically.

And this was in 1973.

Have we made any progress?

>> I would say that their conclusions--

in 1973, you said-- are still true.

The economics that are described there still prevail today

and likely will prevail tomorrow.

>> SULLIVAN: It's hard to have faith

in the plastics industry, when it got out of its crisis

in the '90s by telling Americans to recycle,

even though they knew it was not economically viable.

The crisis passed.

Now here we are again in a crisis.

Plastics are once again on the, the low end

of the public's opinion,

and now the industry is telling the public again to recycle.

>> The industry is not telling the public just to recycle.

We've got to fix the recycling system, clearly,

that's, that's job one.

But more importantly, we have to look at reuse models,

using less where we can, developing new materials--

which is the plastic makers' responsibility--

that can be better recycled,

and also really important that we deploy the technologies

that are now available to us at scale.

>> SULLIVAN: So you don't think this is just an industry

coming up with a way to get out of a crisis?

>> No, no, this is about all of us understanding

that we each have a role to play in, in making the system

that we have better and achieving the goals

that I think everybody would have to say,

"We cannot continue with business as usual.

It's time for change, and this is that time."


>> Let's put these away.

And let me show you another recycling label.

>> SULLIVAN: Back in Oregon,

I put the question to David Allaway.

The question that people are going to have

is what are they supposed to do to make this better?

>> The common refrain in this whole field

is that it's all up to consumers.

And that's the way recycling has been sold, as well, okay?

And, "You just need to sort out your recyclables

and do your part.

Do your part, save the Earth, recycle."

And when it comes to understanding and reducing

the environmental impacts of materials, including packaging,

consumers have the lowest amount of leverage.

The big leverage is with the producers.

Producers should disclose the environmental impacts

of their materials publicly.

And by impacts, I don't mean whether or not

it can be recycled.

I mean, what is the carbon footprint?

What are the toxics emissions?

How much water was withdrawn to produce this product?

>> SULLIVAN: The effect on the planet.

>> The effect on the planet...

>> SULLIVAN: That this product has.

>> That's right.

Here's this flexible bag,

and it's a, it's a plastic-metal laminate...

>> SULLIVAN: Allaway is a leading authority

on the environmental impacts of materials like plastic.

So you're saying consumers stand here and think,

"What can I recycle?"

But the question really is, "How do I reduce?"

>> Reduce the impact.

The producers know what the environmental impacts

of these different formats are, but they don't disclose it.

Instead, what they disclose is the recycling logo.

Because what it allows industry to do is,

it allows industry to keep the conversation focused

on recycling, and never move the conversation

on to the bigger issues,

which are the full environmental impacts of all this stuff.

>> SULLIVAN: But it isn't just industry that's kept consumers

focused on recycling for so long.

Environmentalists have, too.

Looking back, do you think putting the banner

on the Mobro was a mistake?

>> You know, I have looked at that picture

and pondered that for decades.

I think we were naive.

I think we were overly optimistic

about the potential of recycling.

And perpetuating that narrative led us astray.

I mean, absolutely, society-wide,

we bought this myth that recycling will solve the problem

and we don't need to worry about the amount

of plastic being produced.

>> SULLIVAN: In Washington last November,

during America Recycles Week...

>> Welcome to E.P.A.'s 2019

America Recycles Innovation Fair.

>> SULLIVAN: E.P.A. administrator Andrew Wheeler

was talking up the future of recycling.

>> In many ways, we're just getting started.

We need to increase the interest in and demand for

recycled materials and more products made

from recycled materials.

>> SULLIVAN: Companies came with their latest ideas.

>> It's 100% recycled content.

>> SULLIVAN: Some, like Keurig,

saw a need for better technology.

Hi, I'm Laura Sullivan, NPR and PBS "Frontline."

What's happening with K-Cups?

>> K-Cups are going recyclable.

>> SULLIVAN: I mean, you got a, a couple of hurdles,

in the sense that you're going to have to have people sorting

out tiny cups, right?

>> Ideally, mechanical sorting.

>> SULLIVAN: How many K-Cups do you sell?

>> About 11 billion.

>> SULLIVAN: 11 billion, a year? >> A year.

>> SULLIVAN: So, the idea would be mechanical sorters pick out

11 billion K-Cups, right?

>> Ideally, we want all of them back.

>> SULLIVAN: Others, like Colgate-Palmolive,

saw a need for better education.

>> So, we're here today to showcase

our first-of-its-kind recyclable tube.

>> SULLIVAN: So, if, if you put this in your curbside tonight,

do you think that this tube would be recycled?

>> We need more work.

We're working with other organizations

to get the word out. >> SULLIVAN: So, not yet?

>> Not yet, not yet.

>> SULLIVAN: I notice that you guys put

the big chasing arrows. >> Correct.

>> SULLIVAN: Do you think that

because it's not quite recyclable yet,

that that might be a little misleading?

>> We don't think that we're being misleading

because technically it is recyclable.

>> SULLIVAN: As I made my way through the innovation fair...

>> We are Keep America Beautiful,

we're a non-for-profit.

>> SULLIVAN: You guys have been around for a long time.

>> We've been around for over 65 years.

>> SULLIVAN: The mood was optimistic.

Less than ten percent of plastic has actually ever been recycled.

What do you think?

>> Well, that is a, it's a challenge,

and I think what's good is that we're all working together

to help improve some of those recycling habits

and understanding behavior.

>> SULLIVAN: Do you think that America can recycle

its way out of this plastic crisis?

>> I believe with the proper infrastructure

and the proper education, and we all work together,

as a collective, we can.

>> The world is flooded with plastic garbage.

>> 18 billion pounds of plastic waste end up

in the ocean every year.

>> The equivalent of a garbage truck dumped every minute.

>> SULLIVAN: How does this conflict compare

to what you saw happen in the '80s and '90s,

when this sort of last came up with this kind of fervor?

>> Well, one thing that's different is,

the, the actual ecological context is different,

that we're really bumping up against ecological limits.

Like, we can't delay this for another ten, 20, 30 years,

or we're going to... >> SULLIVAN: So, this is it.

>> This, this is it.

For the oil and gas industry, the stakes are higher, too,

because single-use plastic is their plan B.

They're not going to be able to continue drill

that oil and gas and burn it for energy anymore,

because the climate can't sustain it.

So this is their lifeline.

They are going to double down on single-use plastic

like we have never seen.

So we're heading towards a real battle.

This is it.

This is, this is the big war.

>> The U.N. estimates, by 2050,

there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.

>> Plastic in your food.

>> Microplastics are invading our water supply.

>> SULLIVAN: How big a moment is this?

>> I think it's a transitional moment.

I think it is a big moment.

>> SULLIVAN: Biggest you've seen, in your career?

>> It's the biggest I've seen.

This is the first time you've ever seen companies

from across the whole supply chain all coming together

to, to say, "We need to fix this."

So you can talk about this stuff a lot.

We have to show hard results.

We have to start showing success.

And we know that.

♪ ♪

>> SULLIVAN: 40 years on, despite a plastic crisis

that's been getting worse, the industry's future seems bright.

Demand for low-cost plastic continues to grow.

And the production of new plastic is rapidly expanding.

♪ ♪

>> Science tells us that we need to significantly reduce

our use of materials overall, and yet for the most part,

the policymakers are still focused

with laser-like intensity on recycling.

There's nothing wrong with promoting recycling,

except when recycling sucks all the oxygen out of the room,

and we never do anything else.

For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country

has been about the recycle part of "Reduce, reuse, recycle."

>> SULLIVAN: That wasn't an accident.

>> No, it was not an accident.

It was created.

It was manufactured.

♪ ♪

>> Go to

for more on what consumers need to know about recycling.

>> The little recycling symbol with a number.

>> And follow our latest reporting on the coronavirus,

including a new series of our podcast,

"The Frontline Dispatch."

>> ...if you could look at Italy.

What is the advice you're hearing from the doctors

to those of us living in America?

>> They're saying get ready because this is very, very real.

>> Connect with the "Frontline" community on Facebook

and Twitter, and watch anytime on the PBS Video App,


♪ ♪

♪ ♪

>> For more on this and other "Frontline" programs,

visit our website at

♪ ♪

"Frontline's" "Plastic Wars" is available

on Amazon Prime Video.

♪ ♪