California AG Subpoenas Exxon Over False Plastics Recycling Claims

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The Attorney General of California has begun an investigation into plastics and Big Oil. Exxon is one of the biggest contributors to the global plastics pandemic. It is also the poster child for everything that is wrong with capitalism as it has evolved over the past 50 years. It has come to stand for the proposition that corporations owe no duty to the society in which they operate, that they have an unlimited license to lie, cheat, and steal, and have no obligation other than to make money for their shareholders with no thought for the Earth or its inhabitants.

How can such a perversion come to be? Much of it can be traced to the law firms that grew fat by advising the tobacco companies how to dodge and weave their way out of responsibility for the fact that their products kill some of their customers and place an outsize burden on the community to care for the illnesses associated with smoking. The US Supreme Court weaponized this distortion of economic theory when it ruled in Citizens United that corporations have the same right to free speech as ordinary people. What the court failed to realize is that people with a 10 million watt amplifier at their disposal have a significant advantage over a single person on a soapbox trying to be heard above the din of everyday life.

Exxon has been sued by a number of state, county, and municipal officials who claim the company knew as early as 50 years ago that burning its products would lead inexorably to a warming planet, but Exxon strenuously maintains that it did nothing wrong. It even went so far as to try to bamboozle the Texas Supreme Court with the absurd argument that if it lied (without admitting it did), its lies were protected speech.

Exxon, Plastics, & Recycling

The Attorney General of California thinks Exxon has been guilty of a similar scam when it comes to its public pronouncements regarding the recycling of plastics, most of which are made from the oil that Exxon sells. He has issued a subpoena to the company demanding it turn over records that will reveal what the company knew and when it knew it.

In a press release, the AG’s office said the fossil fuel industries in general, and Exxon in particular, have aggressively promoted the development of oil-based plastic products and campaigned to minimize the public’s understanding of their harmful consequences. The office has opened an investigation into whether the ongoing efforts by the industry were intended to deceive the public. As part of the investigation, it has issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, a major source of global plastics pollution, seeking information about its efforts to hide what it knew from the public.

“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 Rob 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.”

The global plastics pollution crisis has been driven by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries, Bomta’s office said. 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.

Doubling Down On Plastics

As renewable energy sources continue to replace fossil fuels, oil and petrochemical companies have doubled down on plastics production. To offset lower demand for fuels, they have invested $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.

Plastics do not fully degrade. Instead, they break down into smaller pieces called microplastics, which 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.

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, the AG’s office says.

The Plot Thickens

Executives at major fossil fuel companies, however, knew the truth, Bonta’s office says. 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 US plastic recycling rate has never broken 9%. The remaining 91% is sent to landfills, incinerated, or released into the environment.

The Attorney General’s investigation will focus on this half century long 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.

The Takeaway

An economic system that takes no account of waste products is a fraud on the citizens of the world. Only by bribing elected officials with unchecked oceans of campaign cash does it become an acceptable business model. Imagine if you will that your neighbor owns a septic system pumping business and at the end of each day, he unloads that day’s waste products onto your lawn. Would you be OK with that because hey, it’s just business? Of course not. But somehow the fossil fuel companies have gamed the system to allow them to pass the cost of cleaning up their mess onto the people while they pocket all the profits. How can that be fair?

The answer is, it’s not. Kudos to Rob Bonta for ripping the cover off the sordid practices of Exxon and its peers. The Earth has been raped and pillaged long enough by these arrogant corporations. It’s time the protection of the health and welfare of people took precedence over corporate greed.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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