In new move, California is investigating oil companies over plastic recycling claims

SACRAMENTO — California will investigate oil and chemical companies over what state officials have described as the industry’s role in fueling the global plastic pollution crisis, including allegations that they have deliberately misled consumers into believing that plastic products were recyclable when they were not.

Attorney General Rob Bonta announced the investigation – the first of its kind in the United States – on Thursday morning during a press conference at a youth community center along an often litter-strewn beach in Los Angeles. He said the plastics industry had wrongly claimed that its products could be recycled when the vast majority of plastic is in fact not reusable and usually ends up in landfills or pollutes the ocean and other pathways. navigable.

“In California and around the world, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception,” Bonta said as he stood behind clear trash bags full of trash. beach plastics. “The big oil bosses, they knew the truth. The truth is that the vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled.

Bonta said the state’s investigation will determine what laws, if any, the petrochemical and oil companies may have violated with their plastic recycling claims. He pointed out that the amount of plastic used worldwide has exploded from around 1.5 million tonnes per year in the 1950s to more than 300 million tonnes today.

Plastic waste accumulates in Ballona Creek in Culver City, Los Angeles County after a thunderstorm. The state will investigate oil and petrochemical companies over what the attorney general calls their role in driving the global plastic pollution crisis.”/>

Plastic waste accumulates in Ballona Creek in Culver City, Los Angeles County after a thunderstorm. The state will investigate oil and petrochemical companies over what the attorney general calls their role in driving the global plastic pollution crisis.

Citizens of the Planet/Getty Images

As part of the investigation, Bonta issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, demanding that the company release documents related to its role in “deceiving the public” about the possibility of recycling plastic. Plastic is created from chemicals made from fossil fuels, so the industry is a major source of revenue for oil companies — and a major source of heat-trapping emissions that fuel climate change.

ExxonMobil rejected Bonta’s claims in a statement, saying the company supports waste reduction efforts and has invested in a major petrochemical facility capable of converting recycled plastic materials into new plastic.

“We are focused on solutions and unsubstantiated claims like these distract from the important collaborative work underway to improve waste management and improve circularity,” spokeswoman Julie King said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Plastics Industry Association said California leaders need to invest more in expanding the state’s recycling infrastructure to more easily manage plastics and educate people on how to recycle properly.

Many plastic products are marked with the chase arrows symbol, which suggests that they are recyclable. But most plastic film packaging cannot be recycled in blue bins because it is an inferior material with low reuse value.

Environmentalists say the sharp rise in plastic consumption has been helped by an industry-led marketing campaign to trick consumers into believing the material is reusable and environmentally friendly. In reality, only about 9% plastic in the world is ever recycled, according to researchers at UC Santa Barbara.

“At the end of the day, the plastics industry is so polluting on so many levels that it’s simply not compatible with preserving crucial ecosystems or a livable climate,” said Emily Jeffers, a lawyer at the oceans program of the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to stop producing plastic waste.”

Growing plastic consumption has wreaked havoc on marine habitats and the environment: more than 14 million tons of plastic leak into the ocean every year, according to a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The litter sometimes ends up harming marine animals who ingest it or get tangled in plastic shopping bags and other packaging.

Plastic pollution has also created health problems for humans who ingest small plastic particles that end up in food, drinking water, and the air we breathe. Because plastic does not biodegrade, it breaks down into microplastics that persist in the environment.

It is now estimated that the average person unknowingly ingests more than 40 pounds of plastic particles in their lifetime, according to researchers at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Recent studies show that plastic has been found in human blood and lung tissue samples, and the long-term health implications are unclear.

Bonta warned the crisis would only get worse as oil companies scramble to expand plastic production, with gasoline and fossil fuels being replaced by clean energy sources.

Bonta said the investigation was starting with ExxonMobil as it is one of the biggest producers, but could soon expand to other oil and chemical companies. He said investigators will look for internal company records that show the extent to which executives sought to mislead consumers.

In recent years, California lawmakers have repeatedly proposed bills to reduce the amount of single-use plastic containers and packaging consumed here. These measures have often been rejected amid strong opposition from business groups, who complain that the bills would kill jobs and increase costs for consumers.

But the matter may soon be in the hands of voters. Environmentalists have garnered enough signatures to put a plastic waste initiative on the ballot in November 2022. The measure would require manufacturers to make all plastic packaging recyclable or compostable by 2030.

Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]

sfchronique.com Twitter: @dustingardiner



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