Exxon doubles down on ‘advanced recycling’ claims that yield few results | plastics – Advice Eating

AOil and chemical companies accused of misleading the public for decades with promises of plastic recycling are pushing a new idea: “advanced recycling.” But environmentalists say it’s more like the same old greenwash, and litigators are hoping companies held accountable for past lies could prevent a new one from spreading.

In late April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says he was inspired in part by a 2020 investigation by NPR and Frontline that showed how companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficiency of plastics recycling but still planned marketing campaigns that gave the public a sense of told a different story.

For oil companies, these campaigns often involved pulling out of the story altogether. Even some climate advocates forget that plastic, made from either petroleum or ethane (a by-product of fracking), is a big part of the climate crisis. Bonta says his investigation started with ExxonMobil because they were leaders in the plastics industry and the message surrounding recycling. A Mindaroo Foundation report last year found that just 100 companies cause 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It recognized ExxonMobil as a world leader in single-use plastics.

In a statement responding to the investigation, ExxonMobil said it is “focused on solutions” such as building the first “commercial-scale advanced recycling technology” and that “unfounded allegations like these distract from the important ongoing collaboration.”

But like normal scrap recycling, advanced recycling has so far shown little to no results.

Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process involves using various chemical processes to convert plastic into other materials. The most common approach is to heat plastic at very high heat to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used either as a fuel or as a feedstock for more plastic.

The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have found that the “advanced” method, like previous versions of plastic recycling, is expensive and that a wide variety of plastics is difficult to collect and effectively recycle. It also offers few environmental benefits, not only because it’s used to either make fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions-intensive. A study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves found that advanced recycling generates more greenhouse gases than landfilling or incinerating plastic.

The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a chemical industry trade group, has been pushing for advanced recycling since China closed its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also lobbied state governments to exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations β€” 18 states have laws on the books that either circumvent certain state regulations or make advanced recycling facilities eligible for subsidies.

It’s part of a strategy that former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy described as “anticipating government intervention” in a video interview with Greenpeace-funded investigative journalism website UnEarthed in 2021. The journalists went undercover as corporate recruiters, getting McCoy to talk about various lobbying strategies on climate change. “The problem will be plastic disposal and recycling,” McCoy said in previously unreleased portions of the interview, shared with the Guardian. He also noted that the ACC has been working on this issue “almost exclusively because [federal regulators] talk about banning plastic and a lot of it has to do with plastic in the sea and waterways.”

A newly hatched green sea turtle struggles to climb over a plastic bag on its way to the sea.  Samandag Beach in Hatay, Turkey, September 2021.
A newly hatched green sea turtle struggles to climb over a plastic bag on its way to the sea. Samandag Beach in Hatay, Turkey, September 2021. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A new report released this week by groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that since the advent of “advanced recycling” in 2018, U.S. plastic recycling rates have actually fallen from their highest ever 9% to less than 6% today, compared to a 66% recycling rate for paper.

“They’re finally admitting that recycling didn’t work,” said Judith Enck, president of Beyond Plastics, of anti-environmental groups like ACC and its members. β€œAnd it doesn’t work by design. It’s not that they’re surprised. They knew all along it wasn’t going to work.”

And the plastic pollution crisis is unlikely to abate. As Bonta noted in his research, the fossil fuel industry has fueled the expansion of plastic in the coming years. “This is their Plan B as we reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation and buildings,” he said. The International Energy Agency says so too, predicting that plastics production, which is forecast to double by 2040, will be the biggest growth market for the oil industry over the next decade.

Plastic film to be processed into disposable plastic bags.
Plastic film to be processed into disposable plastic bags. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

McCoy noted that oil companies like his former employer ExxonMobil are uniquely positioned to deal with increased scrutiny of plastics because they can use the same strategy they used on climate change. “You should be smart about it because you know it’s coming,” he said.

The environmental sociologist Dr. Rebecca Altman, author of the forthcoming book An Intimate History of Plastics, references the history of Exxon’s forefather, Standard Oil, as one of the four original companies that created the modern petrochemical industry. Mobil Oil also introduced the plastic grocery bag to American stores. “They really commercialized that and embraced the paper bag, which was the last paper bastion in the US grocery store in the 1970s,” Altman said.

Mobil was thus also rooted in the various PR battles in the chemical and energy industries in the 1970s. “That [petrochemical] The industry has really been trying to figure out: how do we show our positive value? And the response was positive publicity and then working behind the scenes on energy policy and dealing with the first wave of environmental legislation,” Altman said. “And then there’s this big recycling boom in the 1980s and 1990s.”

Bonta says he’d like to see advanced recycling work, but for now it’s just “words on paper.” A 2021 Reuters investigation found several examples of failed advanced recycling programs, noting that of 30 projects operating worldwide, all were either still operating on a modest scale or were closed, and more than half at previously announced commercial ones Projects years behind schedule plans. A Natural Resources Defense Council report released in March found that advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution, even if it “works”.

Bonta says his research will include not only what the industry has said about recycling in the past, but also how they are marketing advanced recycling today. The investigation may well be extended to other companies or trade groups such as the ACC. “We will go where the documents lead us,” he said. Bonta says if the investigation could lead to a lawsuit, it’s “absolutely” a possibility. “We’re not just investigating to investigate,” he said.

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