We speak to journalist Sharon Lerner about how corporations in the United States are refusing to turn to more sustainable materials, with most of the country’s plastic waste ending up in landfills or scattered around the world. According to her investigation, in 2015, the United States only recycled 9% of its plastic waste, and since then, that figure has dropped even lower. Lerner is a health and environment reporter at The Intercept and a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. Her series “The Teflon Toxin” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World.” That’s the name of a new investigation by journalist Sharon Lerner. She reveals how corporations in the United States are refusing to turn to more sustainable materials, with most of the country’s plastic waste ending up in landfills or scattered around the world.
According to the report, in 2015, the United States only recycled 9% of its plastic waste, and, since then, that figure has dropped even lower. And fewer than 1% of the tens of billions of plastic bags used in the U.S. each year are recycled.
For more, we’re joined by Sharon Lerner, health and environment reporter for The Intercept, reporting fellow at Type Investigations. Her series, “The Teflon Toxin,” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.
Sharon Lerner, welcome to Democracy Now!
SHARON LERNER: Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: “How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World.” Tell us what you found.
SHARON LERNER: Well, I think we all realize that we’re surrounded by tons of plastic now, that so many things are wrapped in plastic, and there’s been this sort of growing awareness that our plastic does not all end up here. And I started trying to think about why we are where we are and why it is there’s so much plastic in our world today. And the piece, not surprisingly, I guess, ended up — in my research, I learned that there’s a huge fight against environmentalists who are working to try to reduce plastic waste. And that is on the part of the big companies that make it and use that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the history of the plastics industry.
SHARON LERNER: OK. So, we began using plastic in earnest in the ’50s. Production kept going up and up and up. I think by ’90, we were making more plastic than steel. And these days, a huge contribution to the amount of plastic we make is single waste, which is about half of everything, which means that, you know, minutes after it is used, it becomes trash.
And the really unfortunate truth, I think, that most of us don’t understand about all this plastic is that it is not recycled. So, right now we’re at about 9% of all plastic — or, actually, a little bit lower, but our peak was 9%. So, over the years, the decades that we’ve been using all this plastic, about 80% of what we’ve used has ended up in landfills or just scattered and littered in nature and, as we now know, in the oceans.
And it’s a very complicated story. Part of it has to do with the fact that there’s no market anymore. There never was much of one. But these days, the ability to sell recycled plastic, which is what recyclers are doing, is an economic arrangement. They have to find an end use for it. And it’s almost impossible for them to do it.
AMY GOODMAN: So, who represents the plastic industry, the industry alliances, and what they’ve been doing for decades?
SHARON LERNER: Yeah. So, there are many plastic producers. Some of the biggest, it’s worth noting, are familiar names that you don’t necessarily associate with plastic, like Dow, like ExxonMobil like Chevron Phillips. These are petrochemical companies. We think of them as oil companies or oil and gas companies. But these are the same companies, because plastic is, in fact, made from fossil fuels.
So, there are two big industry groups that represent these companies. One of them is the Plastics Industry Association, known as PLASTICS. And the other is the American Chemistry Council, which — and they have overlapping membership.
And their fight has very much been to convey the message that we’ve got this, this is under control, there’s no problem here, right? And the problem, the way that we’re dealing with plastic is to recycle it. What’s the problem? You take it, you use it, you put it in the recycling bin — done. But what we’re learning more and more is that when it goes into the recycling bin, if it does, much of that ends up, again, in landfills or being burnt or in poor countries that aren’t able to process it.
AMY GOODMAN: Tell us the story that you share at the beginning of your piece, “How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World.” You begin with the students at Westmeade Elementary School. Where is that? And what are they doing?
SHARON LERNER: That’s in Tennessee. And so, these kids participated in this contest, and they were trying to make the best plastic bag receptacle. So, it’s like a container for people to put plastic bags that are going to get recycled. And you can tell the kids worked really hard on this. And they gave it teeth and a little “feed me” sign, and they painted it green. And they won.
So, good for them, right? And, you know, I have kids, and I see the desire they have to — they understand this is — we don’t want to throw this on the ground. We don’t want to throw this in the water. We want it to go to the right place. And that’s where this was coming from.
Unfortunately, it gets a little more complicated, because the organization that was sponsoring this contest is actually an offshoot of the American Progressive Bag Alliance, which is the lobbying group that fights plastic bans, which are —
AMY GOODMAN: Wait a second.
SHARON LERNER: I know. Very —
AMY GOODMAN: The American Progressive Bag Alliance.
SHARON LERNER: That is what it’s called, yes. And this is a group, a lobbying group, that fights bans on plastic. It is now an offshoot of the Plastic Industry Association. Previously, it was part of the American Chemistry Council. And they’ve been really effective not just in fighting plastic bans, but in passing what are called preemption laws, that make it impossible for cities and towns to ban plastic —
AMY GOODMAN: Wait. How does a — how does a law ban local communities from banning plastics?
SHARON LERNER: Yeah, this is a model that was spearheaded by the group ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, right? And their idea is that — they call it unity, or, you know, they want the states to have only one policy, so it’s not messy. But, of course, what happens is that, you know, if you live in a town or a city, and you are frustrated, and you take this to your local government, and you ban them, well, now you can’t, if the preemption law is in place. And it’s a successful strategy that’s been used by ALEC on other issues — living wage, pesticide spraying.
AMY GOODMAN: Recently, New York passed a law.
SHARON LERNER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain this law.
SHARON LERNER: So, it’s a single-use plastic ban. And —
AMY GOODMAN: San Francisco also passed one.
SHARON LERNER: Well, the entire state of California has one. And increasingly, states are taking this step. The EU, Canada also just banned single-use plastics. I think that’s ultimately where we really need to go. I don’t think that, nationally, we’re heading there anytime soon, which is why there’s been so much focus on what’s going on in the states.
AMY GOODMAN: In your report, Sharon, you write about the infamous “Crying Indian” ad —
SHARON LERNER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — that was created in 1971 by Keep America Beautiful, an anti-litter organization formed by beverage and packaging companies. The ad begins with a Native American, who actually is portrayed by an Italian-American actor, rowing down a pristine river in a wooded environment, which becomes more and more polluted. He climbs out of his canoe, walks through a garbage-littered shoreline up to a highway, where a passenger in a car throws a plastic bag full of trash out the window, which lands at his feet. The camera moves in on a close-up as a single tear runs down his cheek.
NARRATOR: Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.
AMY GOODMAN: The camera focuses in on the Native-American-who-is-not-Native-American-played-by-an-Italian-American’s cheek, and the tear rolls down it. But this is a very famous ad.
SHARON LERNER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Who sponsored this?
SHARON LERNER: So, this was the Ad Council, but also is working with Keep America Beautiful, which is this organization, as you mentioned, that’s really founded by these beverage and packaging companies.
And the thing that was really important about this ad was it really effectively shifts the onus for waste, for plastic waste and all sorts of litter, to the individuals, to people, as opposed to the companies that make them. And it was really important to know that the companies that were backing this and were members of Keep America Beautiful were also fighting efforts to pass bottle bills, which effectively does put responsibility back on the companies.
And this two-edged sword, like two-edged strategy, where you’re, on the one hand, you know, “We’re pro-cleaning things up, here we are fighting the good fight to make everything clean,” and, on the other hand, you’re fighting responsibility for the waste and putting it onto consumers, has been incredibly effective and has — so, that ad was 1971, and we’re still seeing that today.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how plastics affect the world. And who does it disproportionately affect? I mean, we’ve heard about these
country-size garbage, plastic heaps that are rolling through the ocean, for example, moving through the ocean. And how does it affect the developing world, as well?
SHARON LERNER: Yeah. So, plastic is everywhere now, but it’s not equally dispersed. And much of what we’re offloading, we’re sending to poor countries. Theoretically, this is for recycling. And, in fact, it’s been categorized that way. It’s still categorized that way. When we export it, as we were for decades, for about 25 years, at least, to China, that’s called recycled. But, in fact, we now know that much of that waste is not recycled. These are countries that don’t have the infrastructure and ability to process it. And so, we’ve seen this amazing footage of towers of plastic, islands of plastic, mountains of plastic. There’s an amazing film called Plastic China, which documents the effort of a couple poor families to recycle in China.
It’s important to know that in 2018 we shifted, because China made us. They instituted a new policy called the National Sword, which said, “We’re not taking your waste anymore, at least most of it.” And so, we have had to find other countries to export to. But we found them. Right now we’re sending to 58 other countries, and many of them have no ability to deal with it. And so we’re really putting the burden on these poor countries.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to what’s happened with Malaysia.
SHARON LERNER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In May, it announced it was sending up to 3,000 tons of plastic waste back to the countries it came from, in an attempt to halt wealthier countries from dumping their used plastic under the guise of recycling. Malaysia became the world’s main dumping ground for plastic refuse after China banned its import last year. The plastic is smuggled to unlicensed recycling plants from countries including the U.S., Britain, France, Canada, Australia, and is causing environmental problems for surrounding communities. This is the Malaysian Minister of Energy Yeo Bee Yin.
YEO BEE YIN: So, what the citizens of the U.K. believe that they send for recycling is actually dumped in our country. … Malaysians, like any other developing countries, have a right to clean air, clean water, sustainable resources and clean environment to live in, just like citizens of developed nations.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that is the Malaysian minister of energy. Sharon Lerner, talk about this.
SHARON LERNER: It’s exciting. And it’s not the only country that is standing up. And, in fact, a couple months back, the Basel Convention, which is an international treaty governing waste, made a move to make it more difficult to export plastic to all member nations. And that is moving along, where it’s unclear exactly how it’s going to play out, but it does look like it’ll be much, much more difficult for countries, including the U.S., to export our plastic waste. It’s worth noting that the Trump administration has objected to it. And it’s unclear — Andrew Wheeler wrote a letter to the convention, and it’s unclear what effect that will have.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharon Lerner, can you talk about the significance of Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola saying they’re pulling out of the Plastics Industry Association? What does this mean?
SHARON LERNER: Well, that’s right. It’s a big deal. A couple days after my story ran, both companies acknowledged that they were leaving this industry group. And this is the group, known as PLASTICS, that is the parent group of the APBA, the American Progressive Bag Alliance. And the American Progressive Bag Alliance fights plastic bans, which is really at odds with the sustainability pledges that these companies have taken. Several groups have been pointing this out — Greenpeace, As You Sow, an investor group. And in my piece, I really talked a lot about Matt Seaholm, who’s the executive director of the APBA. And —
AMY GOODMAN: And again, the American Progressive Bag Alliance.
SHARON LERNER: Yes, yes. It’s a bit cynical, the name, because it might suggest that it’s trying to address the waste from plastic bags, but really it’s doing exactly the opposite.
And I attended an industry, plastic industry, conference in my reporting and saw a lot of folks who are in the plastics industry genuinely distraught about their role in this pollution and grappling with it. And I have to say, Matt Seaholm was not in that category. He is aggressive. He really enjoys making — positioning himself as the opposite of environmentalists, the antagonist of environmentalists. He has mocked the groups, and he’s talked about bans dismissively as like being just based on emotion.
And he, I think, went too far for some companies, which — I mean, I wanted to shine a light on this, because, really, the groups he’s pointing out and taking issue with and mocking are not in it for the money the way these companies all have a huge stake in this. These are groups that are genuinely trying to preserve the world. They’re trying to deal with climate change, which plastic is a huge, huge generator of. They’re trying to deal with species extinction. And they’re trying to deal with the huge environmental injustice of putting the consequences of all this waste on poor countries and on poor people within our own country.
AMY GOODMAN: In your piece, you talk about the Hefty bag story, yet another example, for fear of making people so cynical, they’ll just sort of throw up their hands. Tell us what this is all about.
SHARON LERNER: So, the Hefty EnergyBag program is this pilot program begun in 2016 by Dow and Reynolds. It’s this joint effort. And
they began by calling it a plastics recycling program. So, they launched on Earth Day — and, you know, part of a long history of corrupting the genuine origin of Earth Day. And basically, their project is supposed to deal with the unrecyclable plastic waste. And so, the people of Omaha, the first city where it was rolled out, were given these orange bags and told, “Put your plastic in these orange bags, and we’ll recycle them.” Well, it turns out, again, that the the first place they went, or one of the first places, was an incinerator that had Clean Air Act violations.
AMY GOODMAN: But it was also to sell Hefty bags.
SHARON LERNER: Well, yes, the orange —
AMY GOODMAN: These are plastic bags.
SHARON LERNER: Yes, were using — yes, one of many ways in which we’re basically creating more plastic as a solution to the plastics problem. So, they did stop sending to the kiln incinerator, but they’ve done a number of other ill-fated projects with the plastic. Some of it has been reformed into fence posts and decks, which sounds like a really good idea at first, but it turns out — and I talked to some chemists and biologists about this for the story — that the toxic additives that are in many plastics are then in the recycled products, so that we don’t know enough about these things, and sometimes we do know that they’re dangerous to put them in a deck that you’re going to sit your children on or sit yourself on, or onto roads, another thing they’re talking about. It means a perpetuation of the release of the toxic substances.
AMY GOODMAN: You also write about the myth of chemical recycling. Explain.
SHARON LERNER: Yeah. So, this is the latest, the latest sort of big push by the American Chemistry Council and other plastic makers about how we can “recycle” our way out of this mess. And I’m going to say, put some quotes around “recycling,” because, again, this
is not exactly what it seems at first. Because it does seem like a great idea, right? If we could just reuse this and it would be circular, that’s wonderful.
So, the idea is, they have sort of two different methods: pyrolysis and gasification. But the idea, broadly, is to heat up these plastics and then, from that, extract some waste — sorry, some fuel or wax or some other usable product, which it sounds great, except we don’t actually know how to do this yet in any economically feasible way or to remove the additives that I just talked about, those toxic additives.
So, this idea has been kicking around for about 30 years. And in the past few years, all the attempts, or most of the attempts, to actually get these things off the ground have failed before they even open their doors, because there isn’t a way to make them economically feasible. And in part that’s because the cost of energy right now, the fossil fuels like natural gas, is almost nothing. So, in the end, you’re going to try to produce a fuel that’s going to compete with a very cheap fuel. But in the meantime, you’re taking basically a fossil fuel product, which is plastic. You’re using fossil fuels to truck it to the pyrolysis plant, then to destroy it, right? And then to create an additional fossil fuel.
When I tried to ask folks at these plants, “Well, what is the — how much plastic do you need to make how much fuel?” nobody told me. They dodged my questions. And you can actually see the leaders of this movement within industries — some of the biggest proponents have openly acknowledged that we don’t know how to do this yet. They don’t know how to do it. They say, “Sometime in the future, we’re aiming for it.”
But meanwhile, even though we don’t know how to do this yet, six states have passed laws that are facilitating these chemical recycling facilities. Some of them actually explicitly lessen, weaken the air pollution restrictions, so they will be able to basically heat and, essentially, burn plastics and reduce some of the toxic — and release some of the toxic emissions under these new laws.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening at the EPA and the massive deregulation that’s going on? The most recent story is chlorpyrifos.
SHARON LERNER: So, chlorpyrifos is a perfect example of how dysfunctional and actually how exactly the opposite of what should be done the current EPA is doing. Now, chlorpyrifos is an organophosphate pesticide. It’s been — its dangers have been well known for years. And, in fact, there was a push to ban it in 2000. And that’s because we knew even back then that it was affecting the neurodevelopment of children. It was killing some people who were poisoned by it in large amounts. And the evidence was already emerging that, even at very low exposure levels, it was affecting how children develop.
So, in 2000, they did manage to restrict it from home use, but it remained on the market for agriculture. And it took many years of work within the EPA and lawsuits against the EPA, by Earthjustice and others, to push the EPA forward with regulating it and actually removing it from the market. There was a decision in 2015 to essentially do that.
And the process, you know, is slow. And in 2016, it was all teed up to go, but there was a comment period. Right? And the comment period was expected, by those who expected Hillary to win the election, to be a formality, and then, in fact, the EPA would go ahead and, as promised and as the science in their report said it must, ban the pesticide. And exactly the opposite happened, as we now know.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the farmers are affected by this, as well.
SHARON LERNER: Yes, absolutely. The folks in the —
AMY GOODMAN: And the farmers’ families.
SHARON LERNER: Well, it’s the folks in the agricultural communities who have really laid out exactly why it’s harmful. There was an amazing study in California, where they have great autism records and great pesticide use records. And folks have combined them and were able to show that exposure to chlorpyrifos in the second trimester of pregnancy resulted in three times the level of kids with autism. So, basically, if you had a kid and you were exposed, the chances that that kid had autism were three times elevated if you were exposed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to also, finally, ask you about your incredible work on Teflon —
SHARON LERNER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — and what’s happening right now. You wrote this series called “The Teflon Toxin.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services did a study that found that the chemicals PFOA and PFOS, which are used in Teflon and firefighting foam, are unsafe for human health at levels as little as one-tenth of the amount the EPA previously called safe. Now, we’re talking about chemicals that are particularly found, among other places, around military bases, the Pentagon using foams containing these chemicals in exercises at military bases nationwide. What has happened around this issue?
SHARON LERNER: Well —
AMY GOODMAN: And tell us about exactly what those chemicals are.
SHARON LERNER: OK, yeah. So, PFOA is an industrial chemical. It’s most famous — we call it the “Teflon toxin” because DuPont used it when it was making Teflon, and that was sort of the big explosion of its use. It was introduced in the 1940s by 3M, which sold it to DuPont.
And it’s been — it’s funny, because it’s called and it’s thought of as an emerging contaminant, as something that, you know, we’re just beginning to understand, but it’s actually been around. And some people have understood it for decades, understood that it was contaminating water in many, many places, that very low levels can have health effects, and that it remains in the human body, can accumulate there. And the other thing that’s really terrifying about this chemical is that it doesn’t go away, which is why people call it “forever chemical.” So, it doesn’t degrade in the environment on its own.
So, decades, this has been, quote-unquote, “emerging.” And over the past four years, it’s really been heartening that finally there is some movement on this. And so, we did see really exciting pushes in Congress and this recognition, finally, by the regulatory agencies, particularly EPA, that something needs to be done.
That said, the folks who are being exposed to it will tell you that it’s not enough. You talked about the level. I was at a conference a month or two ago with the head of the NIEHS, who actually said that the safe level for —
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the National Institute of Environmental Health —
SHARON LERNER: Of Environmental Health Sciences. And she was saying that a safe level for PFOA should actually be 0.1 parts per trillion. And the current level at EPA is 70. So that’s 700 times lower. And she was basing this on studies that her branch of government had done on rats, that showed that very low levels of this chemical produce pancreatic tumors and cancers. So, I published her — we did publish a link to that research, which I think is really important. But I think that we’re going to see the level go down and down and down as we get more science. And some people have said there is not a safe level. I can see why they would make that argument.
But can I say one more — one important thing to realize about these chemicals is that we are focusing on PFOA and PFOS because they’re the best known at this point. And PFOA is known, again, because DuPont and this huge litigation that happened in West Virginia against them. PFOS, which is made by 3M, is a major ingredient in firefighting foam. But there are actually thousands of chemicals in this class, and none of them degrade. And as we have been voluntarily phasing out PFOA and PFOS, the industry has been phasing in replacements that are also persistent, that also accumulate and that also are — as we begin to study them, show that they also have similar problems with health.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, I wanted to get your comment on this, the Trump-Pence campaign website offering a pack of 10 Trump-branded red plastic straws for $15, alongside a caption reading, “Liberal paper straws don’t work.” Politico reports the first batch sold out within hours and that the straws have raised nearly a half-million dollars for Trump’s re-election bid.
SHARON LERNER: Yeah. I mean, they’re not even theoretically recyclable. And if it gives them joy to, you know, put plastic into sea animals, you know, into the world… It’s waste.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Sharon Lerner, journalist who covers health and environment for The Intercept, reporting fellow at Type Investigations. We’ll link to her series, “The Teflon Toxin” — it was a finalist for a National Magazine Award — as well as her latest piece, “Waste Only: How the Plastics Industry Is Fighting to Keep Polluting the World,” published, again, in The Intercept in partnership with Type Investigations.
This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.