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California subpoenas Exxon for lying about plastics
Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a first-of-its-kind investigation into Big Oil’s role in deceiving the public about plastics recycling.
Emily Sanders is the Center for Climate Integrity’s editorial lead. Catch up with her on Twitter here.
We’re back at you on this Friday afternoon with huge news: California Attorney General Rob Bonta has launched an investigation into how the plastics industry — in particular, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies — works to deceive the public about the efficacy of plastics recycling in order to keep selling their product. Fossil fuel companies, whose oil and gas products are used to make plastic, promoted recycling as a solution for plastic pollution even when they knew most plastics couldn’t be recycled and would end up in landfills and the environment. Bonta’s office has subpoenaed ExxonMobil for documents.
Bonta said his investigation is starting with Exxon because it’s “one of the, if not the biggest producer of plastics in the world, as well as one of the leaders when it comes to deception.” At a Thursday press conference, Bonta said his office would be looking into the company’s “historic and ongoing efforts” to downplay the harms of plastic pollution and the pitfalls of plastics recycling while flooding the environment with dangerous waste.
Speaking at Dockweiler State Beach, which neighbors a Chevron oil refinery in densely populated Los Angeles County, Bonta said that more than 90 percent of plastics end up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean — and that fossil fuel and petrochemical companies have for more than 50 years led an “aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.” That campaign involved lobbying legislators to label products as recyclable even when they weren’t, and funding marketing efforts that blamed consumers for plastic waste and touted recycling as a silver bullet.
Big Oil deceiving the public in order to foster an addiction to its products is a familiar story. They knew and lied about the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change, too, and communities and elected officials are now working to hold them accountable in Congress and the courts.
Big Oil has staked the future of fossil fuels on continued demand for plastic products, and is already building out the infrastructure to meet such a demand. According to the Los Angeles Times, global companies have invested $208 billion since 2010 in new plastic production facilities, expansions and factory restarts slated for the U.S. alone. And as we’ve covered before, oil and gas executives sit on the boards of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and industry trade associations like the American Chemistry Council, which lobby to undermine and preempt laws that would ban single-use plastics and reduce plastic waste.
The consequences to ecosystems and human bodies, which are now exposed to the chemical byproducts of plastic pollution and microplastics in the environment, are grotesque. As cited in a press release from Bonta’s office, these hazards are most concentrated in low-income communities and communities of color.
At his press conference, Bonta pulled out his credit card to remind us that humans, on average, consume a credit card’s worth of plastic each week. As one Twitter user jabbed, “maybe Exxon considers that recycling” — after all, it wouldn’t be the first time the company put the onus to clean up its mess on consumers.
Bonta indicated that subpoenaing Exxon to see if the company broke the law was just the beginning, and that his legal team chose to start with the oil giant as “they have distinguished themselves because of the amount of plastic they have produced and put into the world.”
If you’re keeping score at home, Exxon now faces subpoenas from the California attorney general over its plastics deception, from the House Oversight Committee over its role in spreading climate disinformation, and will soon be facing discovery in a lawsuit from Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey over its climate fraud. And that’s just one of about two dozen lawsuits against the polluter making their way through courts across the country.
We’ll bring you more developments on this story soon — but if you want to learn more about Big Oil’s plastic deception in the meantime, we highly recommend you watch this documentary by PBS Frontline. Speaking of which, tune in on Tuesday for the third and final part of The Power of Big Oil, PBS Frontline’s docuseries on the industry’s campaigns to delay climate action, which will take a look at the growing movement to hold Big Oil accountable.