Bad news for everyone who loved watching Bill Nye the Science Guy during middle school science class: your fave is problematic. This week, Coca-Cola, one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, teamed up with TV’s favorite scientist for a campaign to create a “world without waste,” a joke of a corporate greenwashing campaign.
In a video innocuously titled “The Coca-Cola Company and Bill Nye Demystify Recycling,” an animated version of Nye—with a head made out of a plastic bottle and his signature bow tie fashioned from a Coke label—walks viewers through the ways “the good people at the Coca-Cola company are dedicating themselves to addressing our global plastic waste problem.” Coke, Nye explains, wants to use predominantly recycled materials to create bottles for its beverages; he then describes the process of recycling a plastic bottle, from a user throwing it into a recycling bin to being sorted and shredded into new material.
“If we can recover and recycle plastic, we can not only keep it from becoming trash, but we can use that plastic again and again—it’s an amazing material,” quips Shill Nye the Plastic Guy. “What’s more, when we use recycled material, we also reduce our carbon footprint. What’s not to love?” What’s not, indeed! (We reached out to representatives for Nye to ask questions about his involvement in this video and will update this piece if we hear back.)
The video is, on the surface, an accurate depiction of the process of recycling a beverage bottle. The problem lies in what recycling can actually do. Nye paints a rosy picture in the video of plastic Coke bottles being recycled “again and again”—but if everything worked like he’s said, we wouldn’t be facing plastic pollution that has grown fourfold over the past few decades. Thanks to concerted lobbying efforts, the public has been led to believe that recycling is the cure for our disastrous plastic addiction. What it does in actuality is place the burden of responsibility on the consumer and allow companies like Coca-Cola to get away with no repercussions for their waste.
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Most of those plastics can only be reused once or twice before ending up in a landfill. Nye, for all his talk of science on TV, should know this. Over recycling’s 60-year history, less than 10% of plastic that has been produced has ever been recycled. And while in theory, PET—the type of plastic that makes bottles—can be recycled more times than other types of plastic, that’s not usually what happens. Virgin plastic is, simply put, cheaper to make into things like bottles than recycled plastic. Less than 30% of plastic bottles are recycled in the U.S., and a lot of that stock is turned not into other bottles, but “downcycled” into other things, like filler and fabric. These products, in turn, can’t be recycled again. The plastic ends up in landfills. Even with effective recycling mechanisms, research has shown that stuff like bottles can’t be in use for long and will eventually be delegated to landfills. From there, the Coke bottles that Shill Nye so cheerily shows off in the video will last for so long that their lifecycle lasts beyond human frameworks for time.
There’s also a particular irony in Coca-Cola using Nye to send this message. The company produces about 3.3 million U.S. tons of plastic packaging per year, and has been named one of the most polluting brands in the world by multiple different audits. Coca-Cola has also said it has no plans to stop producing single-use plastic, because, it claims, customers simply don’t want anything else. If Coke had a history of fighting for beneficial recycling policies, one ad might not be a problem, but representatives from the company were caught on tape as recently as 2019 lobbying against bottle bills that would reward customers for recycling but tack an extra charge onto the company.
Recruiting the public’s favorite Science Guy, who has been outspoken on climate change, isn’t an accident—it’s part of the company’s strategy to publicly cut ties with the oil industry while continuing to use oil products. As more public attention turns to rampant plastic contamination, big polluters like Coca-Cola have gotten the message that public ties to fossil fuels won’t fly. Accordingly, Coca-Cola has severed ties with industry groups known for working with oil and gas companies to push recycling and made promises on reusing plastics, while also sponsoring plastic cleanup efforts (which have their own issues).
These moves, however, are much too little too late. Plastic waste is rising fast; the amount of plastic trash in our oceans is set to triple by 2040. If Coca-Cola was serious about a “world without waste,” as Nye says in the video, it would be innovating ways to sell products that use no plastic at all. And if Nye wants to really galvanize people on climate change, maybe he shouldn’t do promotional videos for one of the oil and gas industry’s most dedicated customers.