Breaking Down Big Plastic

By exposing Big Plastic’s playbook, CLF is pushing to change its polluting ways.

By , Olivia Synoracki

When Susan Eastwood first started to speak out against pollution in her community, her battle was personal. Her daughter suffers from severe asthma – a condition made worse by the diesel-fueled bus she rode to school every day. To protect her daughter’s health, Eastwood banded together with Clean Water Action on a campaign to keep her daughter and other kids safe from toxic bus emissions. 

Today, as Chapter Chair of Sierra Club Connecticut and co-leader of the Connecticut Zero Waste Coalition, Eastwood’s battles are bigger, and the goal posts are a bit farther away. But she is as determined as ever to protect public health and the environment from toxic pollution. She and her fellow volunteers have the plastic and waste industries clearly in their sights.

Blocking change, however, are large oil, chemical, and beverage companies who spend big to undermine any legislative proposal aiming to shake up the plastic industry.

“There’s just so much money spent [by these industries],” she says, adding that “they play dirty, like with the Bottle Bill.” 

For decades, industry giants worked to undermine Connecticut’s existing Bottle Bill, which was first enacted in 1978. But in last year’s legislative session, after realizing that a law to modernize the Bottle Bill would pass despite their efforts, industry leaders suddenly came out in support of it. That “support” was contingent on one stipulation, however: that control of the state’s bottle return program be handed over to them, the very polluters who spent years trying to destroy it. And they succeeded.

This last-minute move came as no surprise to CLF’s legal advocates, says Staci Rubin, vice president for environmental justice. With public concern over pollution at an all-time high, “we’re seeing increasingly strong support for legislation aimed at addressing the plastic crisis.”

But the corporate polluter playbook is standing in our way. 

Plastic bottles
THE FLOOD OF PLASTIC CHURNS ON: New England cities and towns have seen costs for recycling soar. Yet plastic manufacturers refuse to change their polluting ways. Photo: Shutterstock

That “playbook” is a set of tactics that Big Plastic and its lobbyists have honed for decades. They have deployed it again and again to distract us from the reality of the our crisis with plastics. All so they can double down on plastic production.

But, as big oil, chemical, and beverage companies worsen the world’s plastic crisis for their own benefit, they put the health of people and our climate on the line. CLF and our allies are not willing to let them risk our future without a fight. That’s why we set out to expose their playbook in a new report late last year. That report revealed how the industry has scuttled regulation for decades. 

The newest addition to the playbook – “play along, then undermine” – was key to Big Plastic’s success in taking control of Connecticut’s Bottle Bill last year. So, naturally, Big Plastic used the tactic again this year on companion legislation – a producer responsibility for packaging law.

CLF’s Zero Waste advocates literally wrote the book on what a successful producer responsibility bill looks like. Working with partners in Maine in 2021, we helped pass the nation’s first producer responsibility law, which forces corporations that make and use single-use packaging to reimburse cities and towns for the cost of managing that trash.

With partners like Eastwood’s Connecticut Zero Waste Coalition on board, CLF started this year’s legislative session with high hopes for replicating Maine’s success in the Nutmeg State. But unfortunately, says Rubin, corporate polluters drove the state’s producer responsibility bill from the start. They proposed legislation that not only gave the industry control over the program but also included a loophole allowing so-called “advanced recycling” – a greenwashed term for dangerous high-heat plastic-burning technologies – to be used in the state. 

Eastwood wasn’t surprised by the addition of this loophole. Prior to the bill being introduced in the legislature, she and her fellow community advocates urged state leaders to let them review the bill and provide input. That opportunity never came. Instead, as Eastwood recounts, “we found ourselves in this really weird position this year of working against [several] zero waste bills” – including the producer responsibility for packaging law. 

Luckily, that industry-backed bill did not get far. With CLF and our partners opposed to it, the bill did not make it to the House or Senate floor.

“Clearly, while Big Plastic claims to support legislation to address plastic pollution, it does so under false pretenses,” says Rubin. “This façade serves one purpose: to make sure plastic legislation works for polluters and their profit margins.” 

Connecticut is just the start. Big Plastic is not only pushing against producer responsibility legislation in other New England states – they are pushing forward “advanced recycling” bills. While they were successful in passing such a bill in New Hampshire this year, a Rhode Island bill aimed at authorizing this dangerous technology died thanks to the work of CLF, our supporters, and other activists.

Despite Big Plastic’s efforts, CLF never shies away from a challenge – especially when it comes from big corporations that care more about profits than people. Ultimately, this is the reality of creating systemic change. There’s an ebb and flow, a push and pull, to such large-scale transformation. We get a big win in one state, then Big Plastic adjusts its tactics to try to block progress in another. 

But, as Eastwood reminds us, “there are a lot of really good people working on these issues. And not just the advocates, [but] also in the legislature, in our environment committee.” So, although a good producer responsibility law failed to make progress in Connecticut this past legislative session, CLF and our allies are taking what we’ve learned and coming back stronger next year. And even though Connecticut’s bottle bill system now lies in the hands of Big Plastic, we cannot forget that the newly modernized program includes important upgrades that CLF and our allies fought to pass. 

On a broader scale, says Rubin, “our work on these bills galvanized new partners and introduced CLF to Connecticut legislators and regulators as an organization that is here to stay.” This was especially important as CLF officially opens a Connecticut office later this year.

At the end of the day, we cannot compromise our environmental solutions when it comes to the never-ending cycle of pollution. CLF will continue to fight for what is right.

65% of plastics waste ends up in landfills or incinerators, polluting our air, water, and climate. Only 16% get recycled. Whatever is left over finds its way to unmanaged dumps.

The Center for International Environmental Law estimated that plastic production and incineration would add 850 million metric tons of climate-damaging emissions in 2019 – the equivalent of 189 coal-fired power plants. By 2050, that could rise to 615 coal plants’ worth of emissions.

Get the Facts: CLF exposed Big Beverage’s five tactics to derail progress on recycling reform.

Take Action: 10 minutes is all you need to take action on plastic pollution with our zero waste activist toolkit. Get started today.