California subpoenas ExxonMobil and investigates plastic pollution

For decades, industry has encouraged the development and use of petroleum-based plastic products at public health risk

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The California Attorney General subpoenaed ExxonMobil to appear Thursday in what he called a broader investigation, the first of its kind, into the oil industry for its alleged role in the global crisis. plastic pollution.

Attorney General Rob Bonta said the industry has encouraged the development and use of petroleum-based plastic products for decades while seeking to downplay public understanding that their widespread use harms the environment and the environment. public health.

“Every week we consume the equivalent of a plastic credit card through the water we drink, the food we eat and the air we breathe,” he said, quoting a 2019 study for the environmental group World Wide Fund For Nature.

Bonta will examine whether the petrochemical companies violated the law with what he called their “historic and ongoing efforts to mislead the public.” Bonta said ExxonMobil had been subpoenaed as a major source of global plastic pollution and for its alleged leading role in deceiving the public about plastics.

ExxonMobil and the Western Plastics Association did not immediately comment, and the Western States Petroleum Association declined to comment.

But the American Chemistry Council, representing plastics makers, issued a statement saying “American plastics makers are committed to a more sustainable future and have proposed bold, comprehensive actions at the state, federal and international levels.”

Initiatives the industry group said it supports include requiring all plastic packaging in the United States by 2030 to include at least 30% recycled plastic; make producers responsible for packaging to promote recycling; and support a legally binding agreement global agreement to tackle the problem.

But Bonta said the industry appears to have engaged in “greenwashing” for decades by tricking consumers into believing plastics are environmentally friendly – largely because they can be recycled.

This marketing effort prompted “people to consume more and buy more plastic,” he said. “And that’s really the core of the deception that we’re going to investigate.”

The companies may have violated laws prohibiting unfair competition, deceptive marketing practices or making “green laundering” illegal, Bonta said.

A civil lawsuit could potentially seek fines or damages, but Bonta said its primary focus is a legal order or regulation requiring companies to clean up plastic waste, make changes to how plastics are made, and to promote “non-misleading ways to talk about plastics”.

“We’re really looking at the underlying issue of non-recyclability, essentially, of plastics, and that’s a major issue,” Bonta said. “And we are investigating whether this was fueled by a decades-old campaign of deception.”

There is no timetable for the completion of the investigation, but Bonta said it was proceeding “with a level of urgency”.

Bonta’s decision comes amid growing awareness of the ubiquity of discarded plastics and the role of ‘microplastic’ waste in the food chain.

Scientists are still studying the extent and human harm from tiny pieces of broken down 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 plastic production because so much ends up in the ocean and other waterways.

Like Bonta, the scientists said recycling would not solve the problem. Most plastics cannot be recycled, and overall recycling rates have never exceeded 9%, Bonta said. The rest is incinerated, landfilled or escapes into the environment.

California is among the states that have struggled to encourage recycling against headwinds in the market and to sort out products that may be easily reused.

California has banned single-use plastic bags and discourages the use of straws, plastic utensils and condiment wrappers.

The Los Angeles City Council this week approved 14 measures further restricting the use of plastic bags, utensils and containers at city properties and events. Last week, Los Angeles County supervisors restricted single-use plastic products.

California spends about $500 million each year to clean up plastic pollution in waterways and along beaches, said Bonta, a Democrat running for office this year. He announced the survey against the backdrop of the ocean at Dockweiler State Beach in southern California.

Petrochemical companies have increased plastic production as the use of fossil fuels is gradually replaced by renewable energy, he said. About 1.5 million tons of plastic produced worldwide on an annual basis in the 1950s. The amount is now more than 300 million tons annually.

The Center for Biological Diversity called Bonta’s investigation “a crucial step” but said plastic and its production are ultimately incompatible with a healthy planet.

“We need to stop producing plastic waste,” the group said in a statement.

Bryce K. Locke