Increasingly, courtrooms are becoming hot spots in environmental debates over plastics.
Think California Attorney General Rob Bonta's probe this year into whether the industry has improperly oversold recycling in its public statements, or a state court decision last month in Louisiana that halted air permits for a huge new Formosa Group plastics plant over pollution worries.
The long-term impact of those cases may be hard to know. Little has emerged from Bonta's office since the April announcement, the Louisiana decision is being appealed, and court cases in the U.S. have sometimes seen inconclusive results.
But environmental groups who are active in the litigation globally — and who spoke on an Oct. 11 webinar as part of the ClientEarth Summit 2022 — say they expect more cases.
There's some evidence the numbers are rising. The Plastics Litigation Tracker, a website launched by New York University's law school in July, has identified about 50 lawsuits in the United States over several decades, with an uptick in filings the last few years.
"A lot of those are concentrated in the past couple of years," a tracker representative told the webinar.
There's also more interest globally, panelists said. Two lawyers from the Philippines said litigation is a prominent part of their strategy to force their government to enforce an existing solid waste management law they said will lead to bans of some single-use plastics.
Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, predicted that litigation will increase in several areas, including from communities challenging the health impacts of nearby resin plants, like in the Formosa case, and more generally against companies over the impact of plastics they make or use in the environment.
He compared the plastics litigation to climate-related lawsuits against companies, where fossil fuel industries have faced questions about what they knew of environmental risks, and when they knew it.
"I think this is an area where we see really incredible parallels to climate litigation," Muffett said. "We see, I think, really accelerating and significant risks for businesses that are investing in plastic production or expanding their plastic product lines."
He said successful lawsuits have to link harm to people with business practices around plastics, whether its manufacture or improper disposal, and he argued there's increasing evidence of that. Part of it is driven by state and local governments around the world bearing financial responsibility for cleanup, he said.
"I think the reason we are seeing an acceleration in plastics litigation is that at every link in that chain, we are seeing new bodies of evidence emerge," Muffett said.
Litigation efforts are likely to get more financial support from a Sept. 21 announcement from Bloomberg Philanthropies that it will spend $85 million to slow the expansion of petrochemical and plastics plants in the U.S. Gulf Coast and the Ohio River Valley.
Bloomberg said two of its four priorities would be supporting legal and legislative efforts, and backing more research on the environmental impact, an area that could feed into litigation.
Muffett said there's more research documenting which companies are responsible for producing plastic resin in single-use products, as well as more research establishing direct links between environmental litter from plastic products and the companies that make them, as upgraded beach cleanups become brand audits litter and waste.
"Communities around the world have taken what was once just beach cleanups and they've turned them into a really extraordinary citizen science operation in which they are not only collecting the plastic, but they are identifying it to the producers and the retailers with great specificity," he said. "I think that's giving an increasingly strong foundation for litigation in countries around the world."