California Attorney General Rob Bonta Launches Investigation into Role Played by Fossil Fuel and Petrochemicals Companies in Causing Global Plastics Pollution Crisis

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

California state attorney general Rob Bontalast Thursday  launched an investigation into the role played by fossil fuel and petrochemicals companies in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis.
From the press release

For decades, these industries have aggressively promoted the development of oil-based plastic products and campaigned to minimize the public’s understanding of the harmful consequences of these products. The Attorney General’s investigation will examine the industries’ historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public and whether, and to what extent, these actions may have violated the law. As part of the investigation, the Attorney General today issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, a major source of global plastics pollution, seeking information relating to the company’s role in deceiving the public.  [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

By issuing such subpoena, Bonta can examine company documents to determine who knew what, and when.  Bonta grasps how the plastics industry promoted the recycling myth to deceive the public. Finally! A political actor who’s not been seduced by the recycling fairy. More from the press release;

“In California and across the globe, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception. Plastic pollution is seeping into our waterways, poisoning our environment, and blighting our landscapes,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Enough is enough. For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis. The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled, and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9%. 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. This first-of-its-kind investigation will examine the fossil fuel industry’s role in creating and exacerbating the plastics pollution crisis – and what laws, if any, have been broken in the process.”

Some of us recall a youth when plastics weren’t so ubiquitous. This is no false memory.  Annual plastics production has indeed mushroomed, increasing at least 200 times since the 1950s, and long outstripped feeble waste management efforts. Per the press release:

The global plastics pollution crisis has been driven by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. In the 1950s, the world produced approximately 1.5 million tons of plastic annually. Today, that number has skyrocketed to more than 300 million tons with plans to continue to increase supply in the coming decades. As fossil fuel continues to be replaced by clean energy sources, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies have doubled down on plastics production, recently investing an additional $208 billion to expand plastic production worldwide. Plastics production is already a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the planned expansion of fossil-fuel based production runs counter to efforts to address the climate crisis through a transition to clean energy.

The rapidly increasing production of single-use plastic products has long overwhelmed the world’s ability to manage them. Every year, tens of millions of tons of plastic enters the ocean. Plastic pollution is pervasive in California, polluting the state’s rivers, beaches, bays, and ocean waters and costing the state an estimated half a billion dollars each year in clean up and prevention. Plastic waste also harms California wildlife. Plastic-related wildlife fatalities were documented as early as the 1970s.

Waste disposal isn’t the only issue of concern. Equally if not more worrying is the problem posed when plastics break down into microplastics, which accumulate in blood and body tissues over A person’s lifetime> Their overall effect on human health isn’t yet known and has yet to be subject to sufficient scientific study to understand just how significant a threat they pose. According to the press release:

Plastic does not fully degrade, instead breaking down into smaller pieces called microplastics. Microplastics have been found in drinking water, food, and even the air people breathe. Just this year, two studies found microplastics in human blood and living lung tissues for the first time. Over the course of a lifetime, the average person will unknowingly consume more than 40 pounds of plastic.

Plastic manufacturing itself is highly hazardous to human health, with the pollution burden being primarily borne by low-income communities and communities of color. Plastics manufacturing plants and materials recovery facilities, which are often sited in or near marginalized communities, generate hundreds of millions of tons of toxic air pollution each year.

Increasing attention has focussed on the plastics threat in recent years. Outside the U.S., many European countries, as well as some Asian ones, including China and India, have sought to reduce their plastic consumption, particularly of single-use plastics.

Within the United States, this isn’t the first time plastics pollution  issue has attracted political attention – particularly at the state and local level. Bonta’s press release discusses how previous efforts to address the problem were thwarted by an aggressive – and deceptive – industry marketing and advertising campaign:

In the 1980s, in the wake of images of overflowing plastic at landfills and widespread plastics litter, state legislatures and local governments began considering bills restricting or banning plastic products. In response, the plastics industry, comprised of major fossil fuel and petrochemical companies, began an aggressive – and deceptive – marketing and advertising campaign to convince the public that they could recycle their way out of the plastic waste problem. Executives at major fossil fuel companies, however, knew the truth.

Recent reporting revealed internal documents from the 1970s warning industry executives that recycling was “infeasible” and that there was “serious doubt” that plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.” Indeed, despite the industry’s decades-long recycling campaign, the vast majority of plastic products, by design, cannot be recycled and the U.S. plastic recycling rate has never broken 9%. The remaining 91% is landfilled, incinerated, or released into the environment. [Jerri-Lynn here: my emphasis.]

Bonta’s investigation will therefore concentrate on examining this plastics industry ‘campaign of deception’:

The Attorney General’s investigation will focus on this half-century campaign of deception and the ongoing harm caused to the State of California, its residents, and its natural resources. The investigation will target companies that have caused and exacerbated the global plastics pollution crisis, their role in perpetuating myths around recycling, and the extent to which this deception is still ongoing. The investigation will also determine if any of these actions violate state law.

I laughed out loud when I saw Exxon’s official response to the launch of Bonta’s investigation, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in Exxon Subpoenaed in California’s Probe of Plastics Makers.. Rather than bothering to at least pay lip service  Bonta’s concerns about the futility of recycling as currently practices, the company’s flack went right back to the recycling playbook for her response. And why not, it’s worked before? Why not fob off the public with the familiar recycling ploy, enhanced by some techno spin? Per the WSJ:

Exxon spokeswoman Julie King said the company rejects the attorney general’s allegations. She said Exxon shares society’s concerns about plastic waste and is working on recycling and other waste management technologies.

“We are focused on solutions and meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is under way to enhance waste management and improve circularity,” Ms. King said.

The WSJ account reminds us where all this plastic comes from:

Driven by the shale drilling revolution, which unleashed massive volumes of oil and gas, the petrochemical industry has invested more than $200 billion in U.S. plastics-and-chemical-manufacturing plants over the past decade. Exxon has invested billions of dollars on such facilities and is one of the world’s largest producers of virgin plastic.

With so much investment by plastics pushers at stake, staunching the global flow of plastics is going to take sustained political efforts, not only within the United States, but throughout the world. Bonta at least seems aware of the scope of the problem. And also  understands that recycling is not only not a solution, but is actually an industry feint intended to distract and misdirect attention.

Let’s see how seriously Bonta’s office pursues whatever potential violations of California state law his investigation uncovers.

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  1. Mary

    Better investigation, why doesn’t he investigate the Occidental Petroleum Companies ties to multiple governors and the Getty Oil Company funding Governor Gavin Newsom’s career and the fact that there is still no oil extraction tax in “green” California?

    Oops, because Newsom appointed him. The circle of corruption rolls on an on

    “Eighteen Gettys — including Gordon, Ann and actor Balthazar Getty — have collectively donated more than a half-million dollars to Newsom’s nine campaigns, starting with a total of $750 to his 1998..

    1. Larry Carlson

      He could also investigate whether Jerry Brown had any conflicts of interest when he worked to replace California’s nuclear power plants with gas-fired ones, too…

    2. Jeff

      Despite California’s reputational bonafides with being green, this state consistently hires virtue signaling corrupt politicians who don’t give a whiff about anything green other than depositing campaign contributions. It’s actually kind of impressive. Gotta respect their game.

      And the gullible, inattentive voter.

  2. .human

    If the oil companies want to maintain that cycling is a viable strategy, let’s dump the collected plastics at their sites for processing.

  3. Mikel

    This reminds me to revive the pre-Covid conversation we were having at home about getting water filters and doing away with the plastic water bottles.

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