FOUR CORNERS exposes the sham in plastic recycling

For decades we’ve been told that we can do our bit for the environment by recycling our waste. 

But as Four Corners revealed in 2017, much of Australia’s recycling operations have been effectively a sham with mountains of waste being stockpiled with nowhere to go. 

“Making recycling work was a way to keep their products in the marketplace.” 

Former plastics industry executive

“Society wide we bought this myth that recycling will solve the problem and we don’t need to worry about the amount of plastic being produced.”  

Greenpeace spokesperson

Now, in this revealing investigation from PBS Frontline, the actions of the American plastics industry are laid bare. The story shows how, in the face of pressure to reduce plastic consumption, recycling programs were created to lull consumers into believing that the plastic waste problem was being solved.

“It’s a win-win situation. You get recycling going, that has its benefits and it improves the image of the material.”

Industry insider

Industry insiders reveal how ‘Big Plastic’ has used the idea of recycling to draw attention away from the industry itself, allowing it to expand exponentially.

“For the last 40 years, the conversation in this country has been about the recycle part of “reduce, reuse, recycle.’… It was not an accident. It was created. It was manufactured.” 

Environmental scientist

The program shows how over decades clever marketing campaigns were created to persuade consumers they should carry the burden of plastic pollution, by recycling, rather than expecting industry to reduce the amount of plastic it manufactured. Environmental groups say even they were taken in. 

“I think we were naive. I think we were overly optimistic about the potential of recycling, and perpetuating that narrative led us astray.” 


Industry insiders expose the cynicism at the heart of the strategy.

“There was never an enthusiastic belief that recycling was ultimately going to work in a significant way.”  

Former plastics industry executive

The program shows how tactics brought in decades ago are still fooling consumers.

“At the bottom of all these plastic containers is this little chasing arrow—the little recycling symbol with a number…there are no curbside programs that would accept any of these tubs.”  

Environmental scientist

Plastic pollution is now considered a major global crisis and there is mounting pressure on the industry to act.  Some activists think the battle in America is only just heating up.

“One thing that’s different is the actual ecological context is different, that we’re really bumping up against ecological limits… For the oil and gas industry, the stakes are higher so we’re heading towards a real battle. This is it. This is the big war.” 


It is replayed on Tuesday 11th August at 10.00am and Wednesday 12th at 11.20pm. It can also be seen on ABC NEWS channel on Saturday at 8.10pm AEST, ABC iview and at

Four Corners: Plastic Wars- Monday 10th August at 8.30pm on ABC and iview


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