California Investigating Big Oil for ‘Causing’ Plastic Pollution Crisis

California’s Attorney General is coming after Big Oil for causing the plastic pollution crisis and “deceiving” the public about recycling.
California Investigating Big Oil for 'Causing' Plastic Pollution Crisis
Image: bigto via Getty Images

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Thursday an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industry’s role in exacerbating plastics pollution and falsely promoting recycling’s role in solving it. 

“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,” Bonta said in a press release. “The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled, and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9%.” 

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As part of their investigation, the company has subpoenaed Exxon Mobil for its alleged role in the plastics crisis.

The press release attributes the plastics pollution crisis to the fossil fuel industry, which has sought to increase plastic production as demand for fuels has decreased amid the clean energy transition. Bonta’s office notes recent efforts to offload surplus shale gas supply by investing $208 billion across 351 projects within the fossil fuel industry for chemicals projects. That investment is part of a broader trend that’s seen annual global plastics production grow from 1.5 million tons in the 1950s to 300 million tons today, the announcement reads. 

Along the way, responding to state and local legislatures’ attempts to pass plastic bans, the industry launched marketing campaigns to promote recycling. A 2020 investigation by NPR and Frontline that found that as early as the 1970s, members of the oil and gas industry had doubts that recycling plastic could “ever be made viable on an economic basis,” yet, spent millions urging consumers to recycle because “selling recycling sold plastic.” 

One group at the fore of this marketing push is the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, comprised of petrochemical companies including Exxon, Mobil, DuPont, Chevron and Phillips 66, that spent “millions of dollars to combat the plastics ‘image’ problem” by taking out ads in major magazines lauding the benefits of recycling, an informational page on the California Attorney General’s website reads. 

Today, 79 percent of plastic produced is landfilled and another 12 per cent is incinerated, according to a 2017 study in Science Advances that the announcement cites. Once landfilled, plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose.

“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,” Bonta said in the release. “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.”