The Frontline and National Public Radio documentary "Plastic Wars" that aired last week prompted a lot of teeth gnashing in the industry.
I don't usually do media commentary in this blog, but as someone who covers these issues for Plastics News, I think the two media outlets got it broadly right.
The chief complaint from industry trade groups in their written statements after the show seemed to be that they didn't feel the high-profile documentary properly captured the industry's investments and technology aimed at solving the problem.
As a reporter for an industry-focused media, I can understand the reaction. There's a lot of serious effort being expanded, like the $1.5 billion Asia-focused Alliance to End Plastic Waste, investments in pilot projects in the U.S. recycling system or plans to develop chemical recycling technology.
But from the public's point of view, stepping back from the industry tunnel, all of those programs that the plastics companies and their leaders are talking about are still in their early stages.
The AEPW, for example, is a serious effort but it rests on the assumption that the industry's $1.5 billion in seed money can find solutions that then attract the much larger amounts of money actually needed.
We really don't know if the technological innovations or programs like the AEPW that industry is banking on are going to work long term.
So to me, saying that the show didn't properly recognize the industry work sounds like telling your teacher you have great intentions on your homework and can I please get that good grade ahead of time.
Nothing much has changed on the ground with recycling, and the vast majority of the work still has to be done.
The program looked in detail at challenges with plastic waste in developing economies of Asia. But it also focuses here in the U.S. and the problems in our recycling systems.
Early on it notes a good point you hear a lot from the plastics recycling industry: that soda bottles and milk jugs, the PET and HDPE bottle stream, can be easily recycled here, and there are markets for them. That shouldn't be forgotten.
But it also devotes a lot of time talking about other plastics in packaging that are real problems, including much lower-value mixed plastic waste like multilayer pouches that are popular with consumers and companies but are a nightmare for recycling.
And it devotes time to the impact of China's National Sword program closing off export markets for low-value plastic waste.
I've seen city recycling programs testify before Congress in recent weeks to those same situations and how the economics of municipal recycling programs are really challenged.
It was interesting to me that Jim Fitterling, the CEO of Dow Inc., seemed to acknowledge that point in a virtual keynote at the industry's Antec conference in late March. He spoke one day before the show aired.
"The best example is PET bottles. In places where you have deposit laws and you bring returns back to the stores, PET bottles are recycled at rates of 90, 95 percent," Fitterling said. "But a lot of other plastics you use are not. A lot of them go into the waste stream and once they enter the waste stream, the ability to get them out of there and recycle them is tough because they've been contaminated."
Later in his remarks, he addressed the need for more research on developing single-layer materials that can replace complicated, hard-to-recycle multilayer packaging, and how doing that "can maybe change the value equation."
Fitterling, like the industry groups in their comments, made clear that plastic waste is a real problem.
But I see his comments as agreeing with the documentary, that the "value equation" around all those complex multilayer packaging designs — while they are good for packaging performance — are very challenging to recycle and hence challenging for the environment.
I found myself wondering if the work like Fitterling outlined on technical and economic challenges around that multilayer packaging would have started years ago, maybe we'd have solutions today that work in the marketplace.
In the documentary, Steve Russell, the former head of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, and Jim Becker, vice president of sustainability at Chevron Phillips, share the industry's plans, like reusing, recycling or recovering all plastic packaging by 2040.
While those plans are ambitious, plastics packaging recycling rates remain low: The rate for U.S. PET bottles — the superstar of plastics recycling in the U.S. — is only 30 percent, compared with 60 percent in Europe.
And the overall recycling rate for plastics packaging and containers in the U.S. is 13 percent, compared with 73 percent for paper and about 33 percent each for aluminum and glass.
The show makes the point at the end that recycling is not the only criteria for measuring environmental impact, and plastics have environmental benefits beyond recycling. That deserves important consideration.
But it's also clear that right now plastics are largely one-way materials, from fossil fuel to the use phase to disposal.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and its New Plastics Economy project, the average recycled content use in plastic packaging now globally is about 2 percent. The companies working with the foundation average 4 percent and have pledges to get to 22 percent by 2025.
There's a lot more that could be said about this than there's room for in this blog.
Since a lot of the public attention goes to waste in Asia, the show presents very compelling images and arguments about plastic waste in Indonesia and that country's struggles to clean up packaging waste.
It does make you wonder if we in the U.S. should voluntarily limit exports of plastics scrap to countries like that, rather than contribute to the problem.
But I wanted to highlight the domestic side in this blog. I was watching another documentary around plastics over the weekend, in the Netflix series Dirty Money.
It released an episode in March around Formosa Plastics and its plant in Point Comfort, Texas. Part of the show looks at pellet pollution from that factory and the massive $50 million legal settlement that Formosa agreed to pay to end a lawsuit challenging how it handled pellet waste.
Last year, I went and profiled the local environmental group behind the lawsuit, and they took me to the shoreline around the Formosa plant.
It was easy, distressingly easy, for the group's members to fish plastic resin nurdles out of the waters and dig them up at the shoreline. Those pellets are also waste in the environment and there's no reason for them to be there.
The Formosa case, which became the largest financial settlement under a federal clean water lawsuit brought by private individuals in history, was not part of the Frontline program.
But I watched both documentaries with the same basic idea in mind that there's a ton of work to be done to clean up plastics in the environment and to make plastics into a truly circular material.
One of the industry groups said it felt the Frontline show "revisited old, anti-recycling messages and ignored many recent successes of the plastic recycling industry."
Again, I can see why an industry group would feel that way, with all the work that those of us close to the industry see.
But for the larger public, I don't think there's a lot of success you can point to today.
Recycling rates remain low, outside of some plastic bottles and even they could be much better. Cities (and taxpayers) remain challenged by the economics of too much of plastics recycling. New laws likely will be needed. Plastics in packaging is very far from being a circular material now.
If these plans come to fruition it can be, but we're a long way from talking about success.