California Attorney General Alleges Oil Industry Deceived Public on Plastic Waste
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California’s attorney general announced Thursday he is beginning an investigation into the oil industry for allegedly causing and then covering up the harm from plastic waste.
The oil industry promoted development of plastic products and then deceived consumers into believing the waste they created could be eliminated through recycling, according to Attorney General Rob Bonta. Plastics, which are made from oil, can last for centuries before they degrade completely.
The attorney general issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil for information about its plastics product line. In many cases with nationwide implications, other state attorneys general joined the effort.
“Plastic pollution is seeping into our waterways, poisoning our environment and blighting our landscapes,” Bonta said in a statement. “Every week, we consume the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic through the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe.”
His announcement cited a 2020 investigation by National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service that revealed documents showing top oil and gas industry executives knew recycling plastic was “infeasible” but tried to convince the public of the opposite. One document reportedly cast doubt on whether plastics recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”
Bonta’s pledge to crack down on the plastics industry coincides with a United Nations Environment Assembly resolution last month to forge a treaty that ends production of most plastics.
The resolution adopted at an environmental conference in Nairobi, Kenya, calls on member nations to switch to reusable and recyclable products and to collaborate in technology that replaces plastics.
The Environment Assembly is trying to convert the resolution into a treaty that would be binding on all nations as soon as 2024.
Bonta did not specify what legal action he would take against oil companies, saying he wanted to check out whether they violated any laws first.
A main focus of the investigation is whether oil companies deflected efforts by environmentalists in the 1980s to ban plastics by downplaying the risks through millions of dollars in ad campaigns that said the material could be recycled, causing no harm to the environment.
One television ad that ran in the 1990s showed a worker loading plastics and other trash into the back of a garbage truck.
“The bottle may look empty, yet it’s anything but trash,” a narrator says about a plastic bottle bouncing out of the truck. “It’s full of potential. … We’ve pioneered the country’s largest, most comprehensive plastic recycling program to help plastic fill valuable uses and roles.”
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that less than 10% of U.S. plastics get recycled. More than 90% are incinerated, discarded into landfills or just thrown away.
As large pieces of plastic break down over many years, they devolve into microparticles that can be inhaled or ingested through food and water, according to environmentalists.
From a start in the 1950s producing 1.5 million tons of plastics each year, the industry now produces more than 300 million tons per year. Some of it ends up in the oceans, where it can kill wildlife before drifting to shore in California and elsewhere.
California spends a half-billion dollars a year to clean up and prevent pollution, the attorney general’s office reported.
ExxonMobil officials denied they used deceit. They also emphasized their record as good environmental stewards.
“We are focused on solutions and meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is underway to enhance waste management and improve circularity,” an ExxonMobil statement said.
The oil and plastics industry is sponsoring a $1.5 billion campaign started in 2019 called “The Alliance to End Plastic Waste” that seeks to encourage more recycling and cleanup.
Bonta said he would go after more than one company with his investigation but did not name any others.
His announcement was welcomed by the environmental group Greenpeace USA, which said in a statement, “To end plastic pollution and the climate crisis we need more governments standing up to the fossil fuel industry. It is time to get serious about shifting to an economy based on renewable energy and reusable goods and packaging.”
Tom can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @tramstack.
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