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Recycling facts

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Radio stories crafted for newsmagazine shows such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered are designed to succinctly deliver new information to a wide audience. That means each story needs to serve people who know very little about the topic, as well as those who know a lot.

As reporters select which facts to include, occasionally their choices leave more knowledgeable news consumers wanting more, sometimes for themselves, sometimes so that others will know what they know.

This was the case with a recent story about a Greenpeace report on the abysmal rate of plastic recycling in the U.S. A knowledgeable NPR audience member was hoping to see additional information about the numbers stamped on most plastic that seem to indicate whether the container is recyclable.

The NPR reporter behind this particular story knows a lot about plastic recycling because she's done comprehensive investigative work on the subject. That means she has many facts to choose from whenever she returns to the topic.

On behalf of the listener who wanted additional information included in a story, we contacted the reporter to learn those details.

We also spotlight two recent stories that demonstrate NPR's reporting depth. The first was part of a series that looks at climate change through the experience of people on the front lines. The second story was a conversation among professional comedians discussing the boundaries of sensibility. Both stories take the NPR audience into a unique place, where they hear fresh perspectives.


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

More information on recycling plastic

Nicholas Penning wrote on Oct. 25: I enjoyed Laura Sullivan's story about how plastic is not really recyclable, but I wonder if she might also include mention of the numbers inside the recycle triangle that are on the bottom of plastic items that the plastic industry put there to make us think that those items were recyclable. Those numbers really don't mean anything do they?

NPR has an extensive body of work on recycling. We contacted investigative correspondent Laura Sullivan, whose previous reporting for "Waste Land," a Planet Money and PBS Frontline collaboration, exposed how the public was misled into believing plastic could be recycled. That investigation documents the deception behind the numbers inside the triangles that makes it seem like plastic is recyclable.

In an email, Sullivan told us those numbers "refer to the kind of plastic the item is," out of seven different types. The numeral "7" means "all other plastic that is not 1-6," she said.

Sullivan said: "For years, the public has flipped their plastic containers over, looked at the symbol and dutifully tried to find a recycling bin. And yet the reality is little more than 5 percent of plastic is turned into something else. Only plastic with the numbers 1 or 2 on the bottom stands much of a chance at being melted and reformed. And even then, the numbers are low."

These numbers "suggest a simplistic harmony to plastic — that there are merely 7 different kinds," Sullivan continued. "Every year new formulations of plastic are introduced, and there are now thousands of different kinds, none of which can be melted down together. In response to questions, industry officials told us the symbol was never meant to imply the plastic could be recycled. But as one recycling center operator Coy Smith told us, 'It's pure manipulation of the consumer.'"

Sullivan's investigation found that the symbols were "part of a greater effort to convince the public of something top industry officials' own documents show they knew wasn't true — that plastic could be, and would be, recycled."

While the specific details about the almost meaningless numbers in the triangles were not included in this most recent story, Sullivan's diligent reporting has documented this in previous stories, and her work highlights the importance of journalistic investigations. — Amaris Castillo


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

Workers in Spanish strawberry fields

Hope Joseph's family in Nigeria looks up to her because she provides for them. Right now, she's just trying to survive working on the strawberry farms of southern Spain. All Things Considered took NPR's audience to Spanish strawberry fields to talk to African migrant workers who came to Europe to help support their families back home. The on-the-ground reporting propels listeners into their daily lives: "We're sitting in her makeshift home built of wooden shipping pallets wrapped in tarps to keep out the rain," ATC host Ari Shapiro said to set the scene. The story was part of a series connecting climate change, migration and the political far-right. — Emily Barske

Comedians on controversy

After criticism of comedian Dave Chappelle's recent Saturday Night Live hosting gig, All Things Considered aired a thought-provoking segment on controversial comedy. NPR's Eric Deggans brought on comedians Roy Wood Jr. and Jenny Hagel to explore when comedy goes too far. Their conversation unpeels a few of the issues those in the comedy world are grappling with right now: defining the boundary between an edgy joke and a harmful one, what makes good comedy, and their thoughts on the future of late-night comedy shows after several high-profile departures. This is a revelatory look into the state of comedy in 2022. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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