The television documentary Frontline and National Public Radio are taking a deep dive into plastics waste in a March 31 broadcast, Plastic Wars. That's not unusual, it's a frequent topic of media investigations.
But here's what may be a surprise to Plastics News readers: some of the voices you'll hear are former industry leaders.
Larry Thomas, a former head of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and Lew Freeman, former vice president of government affairs for the group, both show up in roles questioning some of the industry's focus on recycling in the 1980s and 1990s.
In a news release, the show suggests it's taking a look at whether recycling is a real solution to plastic waste, or if it's a way for companies to have some political cover to build new virgin resin plants.
"There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way," Freeman told the TV program. He once ran SPI's government affairs shop, but now he heads the Allegheny-Blue Ridge Alliance, an environmental coalition in Virginia.
SPI became what today is called the Plastics Industry Association. In the 1980s and 1990s, SPI was the industry's central lobbying organization in Washington, and it played a key role in crafting industry proposals. Thomas and Freeman were there at the time.
The documentary seems to have two focuses. It looks back at that period, with what the show says is a trove of internal industry documents. And it looks at whether today's efforts mirror what happened back then, and whether societal focus should instead be directed to ever-growing consumption.
To me, that last question is key. I can't answer whether today's attention on plastics recycling will be more successful. I'm not sure anyone can at this point. You can make an argument both ways.
I've heard critics call the industry's $1.5 billion Alliance to End Plastics Waste a cover for $45 billion in new resin plant construction.
But it's also true that there's a huge amount of public and industry attention on plastic waste now, including from consumer products companies, who can drive changes in how plastics are used as much, or more, than government.
There's investment in recycling from industry. Clearly, more is needed. Plastic waste in the oceans, poor plastics recycling markets that cost cities and taxpayers money and climate worries are all combining to push change in a way that wouldn't have thought possible five years ago.
I know I'll be watching.