Two years ago, when PBS broadcast the Frontline documentary "Plastic Wars," I did not expect it to have much impact.
"I'm not sure that the average PBS viewer will care much about any of it," I wrote in a blog the morning after the show aired. "I think it will reinforce things that the public already thinks about plastic."
But as I watched California Attorney General Rob Bonta's April 28 news conference announcing an investigation into the plastics industry's poor recycling record, I realized that I was wrong.
Frontline did more than reinforce Bonta's negative image of plastics. He and many environmental activists decided that there needs to be an investigation into whether the industry misled the public about plastics recycling in the 1990s.
Did industry mislead the public? Frontline tracked down Larry Thomas, the former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., and Lew Freeman, its former top lobbyist, and interviewed them about the industry reaction to negative public perception in the 1980s.
The Council for Solid Waste Solutions, then an offshoot of SPI, spent millions of dollars on "Take another look at plastic" and "Plastics make it possible" TV and radio ads. Some of the messaging focused on recyclability.
But "Plastic Wars" showed that industry leaders, including Thomas, did not believe that most plastics could be recycled economically.
Judging on actual recycling, CSWS had a mixed record. But the industry did a lot of consumer polling in those days, which showed that public attitudes about plastic did improve.
Critics today point to plastics' explosive growth since that PR campaign. But they didn't grow because of TV ads; they grew because they offer convenience and value, and because of the combined efforts of thousands to find new applications and to replace metal, glass and paper with plastic. And they grew because of inexpensive shale gas. Designers, brand owners and consumers select plastics for many reasons, not just because they are, or are not, recyclable.
I've been a firsthand observer of everything that the industry did in the 1990s and in the years since. That includes the resin companies' ad campaigns and their mostly unsuccessful recycling efforts. It includes when they gave up on their goal of recycling 25 percent of plastic packaging, and when they admitted they had wasted $70 million trying to recycle polystyrene. It also includes a lot of greenwashing. I see less of that these days, but it hasn't gone away.
In the 1990s, I wrote an annual recycling report card, and I gave out a lot of bad grades. But there were success stories, too.
We shouldn't judge plastics based only on how much gets recycled. Plastics have other benefits, including some environmental advantages.
But I'm not a Pollyanna about this issue. When I hear talk about chemical recycling, I remember how those efforts failed in the 1990s. And I know there needs to be a massive investment in collection, and the industry is going to have to pay for that.
I'll conclude with one of the points I made in my initial blog about Frontline: No one should be surprised when an industry trade group is exposed for advocating on behalf of the industry. That's not a scandal.
What will Bonta find? He is casting a wide net, looking at everything from environmental justice to whether the resin ID code amounts to a deceptive practice.
I don't know what a subpoena will find about internal analysis and opinions on chemical recycling, but I won't be surprised if it's not as positive as what companies are saying publicly.
Don Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of the Plastics Blog. Follow him on Twitter @donloepp.