Hi, I’m Sharon Lerner, and I cover the environment for The Intercept. I recently did a story exposing the ways the plastics and beverage industries have tried to shift the burden for plastic waste to consumers. They refuse to take responsibility for flooding the world with plastic garbage, and have presented recycling as the solution to the plastics crisis. In fact, very little plastic gets recycled, and companies like Coca-Cola spend millions to prevent plastic redemption programs, despite the fact that they’re one of the few policies that actually cuts down on plastic pollution.

Proof: https://i.redd.it/cilvpa6w2h541.jpg

UPDATE: I have to run but thanks so much for talking with me about this! I hope we can keep the conversation going.

Comments: 688 • Responses: 29  • Date: 

gollygoshmate501 karma

What industry has most impact on plastic pollution in your opinion?

theintercept817 karma

Right now single-use plastic accounts for about half of what's made. I don't know the exact breakdown of who's using what, but clearly lots of single-use is food packaging.

ImperialNavyPilot264 karma

What is the logic behind Coke spending money to undermine recycling and taking responsibility for recycling. Surely they would save money by reusing plastic? Or is that the issue, that’s it’s actually far cheaper to just make new ones than recycle? So much cheaper that Coke spends millions to keep that situation in place?

theintercept418 karma

Yes, "virgin" plastic is extremely cheap right now and often cheaper than recycled plastic. In general, Coke and beverage companies in general, I believe, prefer not to have to take on the cost and responsibility of recycling their containers.

2friedchknsAndaCoke205 karma

follow up to this: Could governments put pressure on the companies by levying taxes on "virgin" plastic and giving subsidies to recycling companies that deal specifically with plastic? If so, what's holding them back from doing just that?

theintercept194 karma

Yes that's an idea. And also there could be requirements to include a certain amount of recycled plastics in products

caffn8d73 karma

Enough people need to care about this particular issue to tip the status quo and motivate the government to act.

theintercept116 karma

Yes - and more and more people do seem to care. There's been a real outcry - and companies are beginning to notice. In terms of legislation, Senator Udall has a bill coming out that would do a lot of great things.. Here's where you can find the draft https://www.tomudall.senate.gov/download/plastics-leg

Among other things, it would put in place a nationwide bottle bill/container deposit law and require plastic producers to take responsibility for their products

Vandechoz12 karma

right now

wait, was it ever not the case? when was recycling plastic ever cost-efficient?

theintercept76 karma

Here's a crazy thing I learned while researching these stories: the PEAK recycling rate for plastics in the US was... 9.5 percent. So never in our history have we managed to recycle even 10 percent of the plastic we've used

Dr_C_178 karma

If you're being completely honest with yourself, do you think we'll ever see a day where the majority of all packaging materials are recyclable and recycled?

theintercept343 karma

Recycled - no. Recyclable though is different and it's important to distinguish between these two, it turns out. Much of the plastic in our oceans and landfills and scattered about is "recycleable" in that it has the potential to be turned into other products. But I have noticed many companies playing up their products' recyclability without acknowledging that, in reality, they're very unlikely to be recycled. The recently introduced Starbucks lid is a good example of this. (Here's a story on that one https://theintercept.com/2019/04/19/starbucks-plastic-lids-recyclable/ ) The gist is that, while the company is patting itself on the back for replacing more than 1B straws each year, the lid is made of polypropylene, only 5.1 percent of which was recycled in the U.S. in 2015. So most of them will end up in landfills and burnt too - even though they're theoretically recyclable.

jerremz107 karma

Hi Sharon! It seemed to me that the more you recycle plastic, the worth the quality of the plastic itself gets... So, is there another option than stop using plastic? Another thing I heard is about a fungus(I think!) that would eat plastic. Any news about that discovery? Thanks in advance,

theintercept191 karma

Yes the quality worsens - and even the first generation is sometimes inferior - in terms of color and consistency - to the "virgin" which makes it more difficult to sell. And if you can't sell it, you can't recycle it. The whole thing has to function on an economic level. I don't know about the fungus, but I do think that the takeaway is that we have to significantly reduce our production and use of plastic. It won't be possible to eliminate it, but many of these plastics are unnecessary - just about convenience - and these products should, when possible, ultimately go.

Hanzo4451 karma

I work in the bottled water industry until after the new year. Can I help your research?

theintercept36 karma

I love to hear from people who work in the industry! Please feel free to get in touch if you have a story to share. Thank you

connectsnk38 karma

I read somewhere that plastic cant be recycled because different grades of plastics get mixed. If all plastic manufactured was of the same grade, plastic can be recycled endlessly. Is that true? If it is, should we try to support a policy which limits the grades of plastics that are manufactured to just 1 or 2?

theintercept35 karma

Contamination is a huge issue. But even the plastics with the highest rates of recycling - you're right, #s 1 and 2, are mostly not recycled. I believe the recycling rates for both less than 1/2. The latest data are: 28.9% PET bottles, 30.4% HDPE bottles.

ZakTSK35 karma

My towns (Hillsboro NH) waste treatment center has recently decided to ban plastic from the recycling and instead have it incinerated along with the garbage, is that a good solution for plastic waste, or is it just putting it in the air?

theintercept43 karma

It solves one problem and creates another. Unfortunately, incineration causes air pollution, which is a serious problem.

geraldineparsonsmith26 karma

Forgive me since I am clueless about microplastics, however, is anyone else [besides me] alarmed at the microplastics in things like shampoo, conditioner, lotions, etc. that are washed into our water as well? Or, am I being hysterical?

theintercept40 karma

I agree that microplastics is a serious issue. What I find worrisome is that, as we're realizing they're everywhere - in our air, our water, our products, our food, and our bodies - it's unclear what the health effects are. My sense is that we will be seeing a lot of research in this area in the coming years. My hunch is that it can't be great for you to have tiny bits of plastic lodged within your body, but the specifics of what it all means are still unclear.

Uresanme25 karma

With regard to plastic in the ocean, if we can’t clean up the 10 most polluted rivers in Asia why bother trying to clean up the problem anywhere else?

(Note: something like 90% of ocean garbage comes from only 10 rivers in China and India)

theintercept54 karma

There has been a lot of focus on these rivers in Asia. I don't think we should give up on cleaning any of it up. But it's important to note that the US and others in the West export much of our plastic to Asia. (No longer to China, but other countries.) And so some of the plastic that's ending up in the rivers is from us. But you're right that Asia has a huge problem. A big part of addressing it has to be by reducing production - rather than cleaning it up after it's made and tossed.

nochinzilch30 karma

If there is an incentive for people to turn their plastic back in, they won't throw them in rivers.

theintercept20 karma


rootsnblueslover24 karma

Realistically, what is the state of plastic recycling in the U.S. since it's being turned down and/or shipped back by nations who formerly accepted it? Where does it now all go?

theintercept27 karma

Unfortunately much of it is getting burned. We're now burning six times the amount of plastic we're recycling : (

and as I mentioned above, lots of it is being shipped to countries that have little ability to deal with it. Last tally, it was going to 58 countries, I believe, including Turkey, Senegal, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, and Vietnam

Luv_Big_Krizzle23 karma

Why focus on Coke when there are many companies that undermine recycling efforts, as stated in the article?

theintercept72 karma

Hi all - and good question. You're absolutely right that they're not the only one. Yet Coke is a HUGE user of plastic. By their own numbers, they produce 117 billion plastic bottles a year. (Here's their report FYI https://www.coca-colacompany.com/content/dam/journey/us/en/policies/pdf/safety-health/coca-cola-business-and-sustainability-report-2018.pdf ) They're also very influential when it comes to policy. We did a big piece about the quiet influence Coke has over bottle bills, for instance, which are programs that requires beverage companies to tack a charge onto the price of their drink to be refunded after it’s returned. They actually work really well. But Coke has opposed them and, as our piece showed, recycling organizations that they fund sometimes oppose them, too. https://theintercept.com/2019/10/18/coca-cola-recycling-plastics-pollution/

citruspers14 karma

which are programs that requires beverage companies to tack a charge onto the price of their drink to be refunded after it’s returned. They actually work really well.

We have such a thing over here for nearly every 1.5L bottle, it's 25 cents per bottle and it works really well, just as you say. I wish it would be expanded to cans as well like in Germany.

Tacoman40410 karma

It's in several states in the US as well.

theintercept13 karma

Yes 10 states now have bottle bills on the books. But most of them passed in the 1970s and ’80s. And the beverage industry has been actively fighting efforts to create new ones. They've even managed to get at least one overturned

SMGB_NeonYoshi19 karma

Do you feel that branding both people poeple seeking to end plastic pollution and people seeking to thwart global warming, among other things, as "Environmentalists" might be too vague of an umbrella term and we should try to be more specific about what we're referring to with "environmentalist"? What is the hard and fast term to describe someone who is trying to mitigate the amount of plastic in the ocean anyways?

theintercept21 karma

It's a fine question. I feel frustrated with the term myself. it creates a subcategory of human who cares about the fate of the planet and the creatures on it. Maybe better to cordon off the rest of everyone, since I'm guessing that, defined as caring about climate and plastic, the category of "environmentalists" would include most people

dunwoodyres113 karma

What is Coke’s opinion on the state of their aluminum recycling initiatives?

letsgetthisover10 karma

Any municipality will take any aluminum beverage can for recycling. There's money in that.

theintercept19 karma

Aluminum recycling does seem to function well. Don't know how Coke feels about it

AsOneLives10 karma

I know that this may be a little out of your element, but do you think smaller portion, biodegradable packaging would help?

Personally as someone who lives alone, I’m caught buying bigger packages of food than necessary because that’s all there is with little to no constant way to share/give away anything I might not need due to my own physical/financial restrictions. I don’t need everything to be family sized. Also, the waste of box space and bag space with like 50-75% chip bags, cereals, etc.

Looking forward to any thoughts you might be able to offer as it’s something I’ve thought a lot about.

theintercept8 karma

biodegradable is certainly better - and plastic is decidedly not that

sin-ick8 karma

Just want to say thank you for the research. The fact that state governments are banning local governments from addressing the issue sickens me. Not only are these people (?) Doing nothing to address pollution, they are actively blocking simple solutions.

theintercept6 karma

Yes it's important to look at the state and local legislation - particularly the bag bans, which are being passed with the help of donations to legislators. Sometimes these are really small - a few thousand dollars - but industry has done a great job of winning over folks with this money which ties the hands of localities that want to ban plastic

BlatantFalsehood7 karma

Are any countries close to banning plastics? That seems to be the answer.

theintercept24 karma

actually a lot of countries have plastic bans in place! One hundred and forty-one countries, including China, Bangladesh, India, and 34 African countries, have implemented taxes or partial bans on plastics.

psudo_help3 karma

Hi Ms. Lerner, thanks for your reporting.

Recycling in the west is larger a burden on the consumer, if I understand.

How might a system shift that burden onto manufactures or corporations?

Why might that shift lead to more effective recycling?

theintercept10 karma

Right now in the US, municipalities - ie taxpayers - pay for most recycling. Paying for it through a fee on products would certainly shift that burden

Texann_Pharoh2 karma

There are lots of things that i want to ask but one thing that fascinates me about this type of investigative journalism is how clandestine it seems. I may just be reaching here but how did you do this and how long did this story take? Was there a team or was it just yourself? Also your work was A1.

theintercept2 karma

Thank you. It took a few months to research and write

BIPOne-1 karma

What do we do about India, Phillipines, Vietnam, Africa, and many other countries dumping literal rivers of plastic into the ocean? Are we westerners supposed to fix this, from afar? Do you think a stop on exporting plastic trash, would help them, despite them also producing plastic, and dumping it in the same way? You do know that some companies offer humanitarian aid, to africa, with bottled water, that HAS to be plastic bottles to be safe to store and drink, and those bottles are ALSO discarded, and end up on shorelines?

Are you seeing the bigger picture or biased against your own western people?

theintercept20 karma

I'm not saying "we westerners" have to fix this. I'm saying this is a massive problem that needs to be fixed. The oceans don't belong to individual countries. You can talk about ownership when it comes to the companies that make and profit from this, though. And the biggest producers of plastic aren't the countries you mention - they're multinational conglomerates such as Dow, BASF, ExxonMobil, SABIC, etc.

theintercept19 karma

You're right that many plastic bottles are used getting potable water to people who lack it. This is huge! I recently spoke with Nina van Toulon, who is based on the island of Flores, Indonesia. She told me about Coca-Cola doing an amazing job of getting bottled water to remote locations in her country that lacked clean water. Once the bottles got to these places, though, there was no way to recycle them, which has caused a real problem. As she put it "You go to the most remote village here, hours from anywhere, and there is bottled water and Coke. But then the people in the village burn it.... These companies have made the effort to get their products to these villages, but they don’t make the effort to get the plastic back from the villages.”