California's top law enforcement agency is launching an investigation into whether the petrochemical industry deceived the public over plastics recycling, and its first action was to subpoena ExxonMobil Chemical Co.
ExxonMobil was quick to denounce the move as "meritless allegations."
The surprise April 28 announcement from Attorney General Rob Bonta said his office will probe fossil fuel and petrochemical companies "for their role in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis" and whether the industry broke laws in its "plastics deception campaign."
A news release does not detail what those laws are, but documents from Bonta's office suggest a number of areas investigators may examine, such as whether the chasing arrows symbol in the resin identification code confuses the public, claims around chemical recycling technologies and the rapid growth of single-use plastics that have overwhelmed recycling systems.
Bonta's news release also points to a 2020 investigation from National Public Radio and Frontline into internal plastics industry documents from decades ago, suggesting that executives were skeptical about the economic viability of recycling and how much of a solution it could be to waste problems.
"Enough is enough," Bonta said. "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 vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled, and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9 percent," Bonta said. "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."
ExxonMobil, in a statement, rejected Bonta's claims as "meritless allegations [that] distract from the important collaborative work that is underway" and said it was "focused on solutions."
"We share society's concerns and are collaborating with governments, including the state of California, communities and other industries to support projects around the world to improve waste management and circularity," the company said. "We are the first company to deploy commercial-scale advanced recycling technology at a major petrochemical facility. This technology converts a broad range of used plastic to raw materials that can be utilized to make new plastic."
Bonta's documents point to growing use of single-use plastics that has "overwhelmed the world's ability to manage them" and said cleanup and prevention efforts cost California up to $500 million a year.
As well, Bonta's documents suggested investigators will examine claims around chemical recycling.
"The campaign of deception has also continued," Bonta's office said. "The plastics industry continues to push the myth of broad-based plastic recycling as a tidy solution to the plastics crisis — with a modern twist.
"In addition to supporting traditional recycling, the plastics industry is advocating for more advanced recycling, also known as chemical recycling," it said. "Even the plastics industry acknowledges that it is unclear whether and when advanced recycling would 'close the loop.'"
Bonta's office mentioned concerns over microplastics and the environmental justice impact of plastics manufacturing on communities near factories.
Bonta said the investigation would focus on three actions: targeting companies that have "caused and exacerbated" the global plastics pollution crisis; investigating their role in "perpetuating myths around recycling" and whether the deception is ongoing; and determining if those actions violate the law.
It said it was starting with a subpoena of ExxonMobil because its polymers account for more single-use plastic waste than any other company and because it "was an active participant in the Council for Solid Waste Solutions, which spent millions of dollars in the 1980s to convince the public we could recycle our way out of the plastics problem."
The announcement comes four months after the California Statewide Commission on Recycling Markets and Curbside Recycling sent Bonta's office a detailed letter asking him to investigate marketing claims around plastics bag and film recycling.
California voters are also set to consider a ballot referendum in November that could put a tax of up to 1 cent on single-use plastics to fund environmental cleanup and recycling.
Bonta's announcement was praised by environmental groups in the state and nationally, comparing it to lawsuits against oil companies over climate change and the tobacco industry over denying health risks from smoking.
"We need to hold oil companies and plastics manufacturers accountable for the plastic pollution crisis that they created," said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy at Californians Against Waste. "They knew long ago that plastic pollution was destroying the environment and harming human health, and they spent millions of dollars to lie about it and deceive the public."
Jan Dell, founder of the NGO The Last Beach Cleanup and a member of the California recycling commission, said she thought the connection between plastic makers and environmental pollution would be easier to demonstrate in court than connections between fossil fuel companies and climate change.
"Plastic waste is tangible with direct and immediate harms," said Dell, who was also vice chair of the U.S. Federal Sustained National Climate Assessment Committee in 2016. "The plastic waste was made by a short list of companies, including ExxonMobil and Dow at the top."
Judith Enck, the head of Beyond Plastics and a former regional administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, noted that Bonta's investigation is not a lawsuit at this point but called it a bold step and predicted it could also address recyclability labeling concerns.
"I view this as a very significant investigation, which has the potential to finally hold plastic producers accountable for the immense environmental damage caused by plastics," she said. "It will also address the ongoing deception of claiming that plastics are recyclable when, in fact, less than 10 percent are actually recycled."
The American Chemistry Council, in a statement, did not directly address Bonta's investigation but pointed to steps it has taken, such as support for extended producer responsibility legislation and backing a global plastics environmental treaty in talks at the United Nations.
"Plastics belong in our economy, not our environment," ACC said. "America's plastic makers are committed to a more sustainable future and have proposed comprehensive and bold actions at the state, federal and international levels.
"They include requiring all plastic packaging in the U.S. to include at least 30 percent recycled plastic by 2030, establish a producer responsibility system for packaging that will help increase recycling infrastructure, and support of a legally binding global agreement to stop leakage and build waste management infrastructure globally," ACC said.
At a news conference announcing the investigation, Bonta told reporters that there was enough information available publicly about industry efforts to lead them to start subpoenas for more information, NPR reported.