California’s Attorney General has subpoenaed ExxonMobil for its alleged role in causing a global plastic pollution crisis as part of what he called a wide-ranging investigation into the oil industry, allegations the company said were unfounded.
Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday that the industry has encouraged the development and use of petroleum-based plastic products for decades while trying to minimize public understanding that their widespread use harms the environment and public health.
“Every week we use a credit card’s worth of plastic through the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe,” he said, citing a 2019 study for environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature.
Bonta will investigate whether petrochemical companies have broken the law with their “historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public.” Bonta said ExxonMobil was subpoenaed as a significant source of the world’s plastic pollution and for its alleged role in deceiving the public about plastics.
ExxonMobil said in a statement that it is “focused on solutions and unfounded allegations like these distract from the important collaboration that is underway” with governments worldwide, including California.
The company said it was the first to have “advanced commercial-scale recycling technology” at a large facility to convert used plastic into material that could be used to make new plastic.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, issued a statement saying that U.S. “plastics manufacturers are committed to a more sustainable future and have proposed comprehensive and bold action at the state, federal and international levels.” .
Initiatives the industry group supports include requiring all plastic packaging in the US to contain at least 30% recycled plastic by 2030, making manufacturers responsible for packaging to encourage recycling, and supporting a legally binding global agreement to combating the problem.
However, Bonta said the industry appears to have been “greenwashing” for decades, leading consumers to believe that plastics are environmentally friendly and can be easily recycled.
These marketing efforts “made it convenient for people to consume more and buy more plastic,” he said. “And that’s really at the heart of the deception that we’re going to investigate.”
Companies may have violated laws that make unfair competition, deceptive business practices or “greenwashing” illegal, Bonta said.
A civil lawsuit could seek fines or damages, but Bonta said his primary goal is a legal order or settlement that obliges companies to eliminate plastic waste, make changes to how plastics are made, and promote “non-misleading ways of talking about plastics.”
“We’re really looking at the underlying problem of non-recyclability of plastics, and that’s a big problem,” Bonta said. “And we’re investigating whether that was fueled by a decades-old deception campaign.”
There is no timeline for the completion of the investigation, but Bonta said it is proceeding “with some urgency.”
Bonta’s move comes amid growing awareness of the proliferation of discarded plastic and the role of “microplastic” waste in the food chain.
Scientists are still studying the extent and human harm from tiny bits of plastic, some so small they are invisible to the naked eye.
The National Academy of Sciences said in December that the United States, the world’s largest producer of plastic waste, should reduce its plastic production because so much ends up in the ocean and other waterways.
Like Bonta, the scientists have said recycling won’t solve the problem. Most plastics cannot be recycled, and the overall recycling rate has never exceeded 9%, Bonta said. The rest is incinerated, landfilled or released into the environment.
California is among the states that have made efforts to promote recycling against market headwinds and to weed out products that can be easily reused.
California has banned single-use plastic bags and discourages the use of drinking straws, plastic utensils, and condiment wrappers.
The Los Angeles City Council this week approved 14 measures that further restrict the use of plastic bags, utensils and containers at city properties and events. Los Angeles County regulators restricted single-use plastic products last week.
California spends about $500 million each year to clean up plastic pollution on waterways and beaches, said Bonta, a Democrat who is running for re-election this year. He announced the survey against an ocean backdrop at Dockweiler State Beach in Southern California.
Petrochemical companies have ramped up plastics production as fossil fuel use is gradually being replaced by renewable energy, he said. In the 1950s, around 1.5 million tons of plastic were produced annually worldwide. The amount is now more than 300 million tons annually.
The Center for Biological Diversity called Bonta’s research “a critical step,” but said plastic and its production are ultimately inconsistent with a healthy planet.
“We must stop producing plastic waste,” the company said in a statement.