LOS ANGELES – California Attorney General Rob Bonta today announced an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their role in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis. For decades, these industries have aggressively promoted the development of oil-based plastic products and campaigned to minimize the public’s understanding of the harmful consequences of these products. The Attorney General’s investigation will examine the industries’ historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public and whether, and to what extent, these actions may have violated the law. As part of the investigation, the Attorney General today issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, a major source of global plastics pollution, seeking information relating to the company’s role in deceiving the public.
“In California and across the globe, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception. Plastic pollution is seeping into our waterways, poisoning our environment, and blighting our landscapes,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Enough is enough. 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 truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled, and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9%. Every week, we consume the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic through the water we drink, the food we eat, and the air we breathe. 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.”
The global plastics pollution crisis has been driven by the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. In the 1950s, the world produced approximately 1.5 million tons of plastic annually. Today, that number has skyrocketed to more than 300 million tons with plans to continue to increase supply in the coming decades. As fossil fuel continues to be replaced by clean energy sources, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies have doubled down on plastics production, recently investing
The rapidly increasing production of single-use plastic products has long overwhelmed the world’s ability to manage them. Every year, tens of millions of tons of plastic enters the ocean. Plastic pollution is pervasive in California, polluting the state’s rivers, beaches, bays, and ocean waters and costing the state an estimated half a billion dollars each year in clean up and prevention. Plastic waste also harms California wildlife. Plastic-related wildlife fatalities were documented as early as the 1970s.
Plastic does not fully degrade, instead breaking down into smaller pieces called microplastics. Microplastics have been found in drinking water, food, and even the air people breathe. Just this year, two studies found microplastics in human blood and living lung tissues for the first time. Over the course of a lifetime, the average person will unknowingly consume more than 40 pounds of plastic.
Plastic manufacturing itself is highly hazardous to human health, with the pollution burden being primarily borne by low-income communities and communities of color. Plastics manufacturing plants and materials recovery facilities, which are often sited in or near marginalized communities, generate hundreds of millions of tons of toxic air pollution each year.
In the 1980s, in the wake of images of overflowing plastic at landfills and widespread plastics litter, state legislatures and local governments began considering bills restricting or banning plastic products. In response, the plastics industry, comprised of major fossil fuel and petrochemical companies, began an aggressive – and deceptive – marketing and advertising campaign to convince the public that they could recycle their way out of the plastic waste problem. Executives at major fossil fuel companies, however, knew the truth.
Recent reporting revealed internal documents from the 1970s warning industry executives that recycling was “infeasible” and that there was “serious doubt” that plastic recycling “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.” Indeed, despite the industry’s decades-long recycling campaign, the vast majority of plastic products, by design, cannot be recycled and the U.S. plastic recycling rate has never broken 9%. The remaining 91% is landfilled, incinerated, or released into the environment.
The Attorney General’s investigation will focus on this half-century campaign of deception and the ongoing harm caused to the State of California, its residents, and its natural resources. The investigation will target companies that have caused and exacerbated the global plastics pollution crisis, their role in perpetuating myths around recycling, and the extent to which this deception is still ongoing. The investigation will also determine if any of these actions violate state law.
More information on the global plastics pollution crisis and the Attorney General’s investigation can be found at https://oag.ca.gov/plastics.