California will investigate whether fossil fuel companies have broken the law by perpetuating myths about plastic recycling, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced yesterday.
The investigation marks another attempt to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for downplaying the damage their products are doing to the planet. California to investigate whether companies have misled consumers into thinking that recycling keeps plastic out of landfills and ecosystems – and whether they have broken any laws in the process.
The reality is that the vast majority of plastic — more than 90 percent of all the plastic ever made – is never recycled.
“Enough is enough,” Bonta said in a… press release† “For more than half a century, the plastics industry has waged an aggressive campaign to mislead the public, perpetuating the myth that recycling can solve the plastic crisis.”
Plastic is actually difficult to recycle (more so than some other materials) and degrades every time it is reprocessed. That is one of the reasons why your plastic bottle is unlikely to become another bottle. If reused, it is more likely to end up as fibers in carpet, which does not require such a high-quality plastic. And it often costs more to recycle plastic than to throw it away, incinerate – or just make more new plastic.
Plastic manufacturers anticipated these issues with their products decades ago, according to a 2020 study by NPR and PBS frontline, but promoted recycling as a viable solution to plastic waste anyway. “There is serious doubt that” [recycling plastic] may someday be made viable on an economic basis,” the news outlets quoted an industry insider in a 1974 speech.
The popularity of plastic has increased enormously in recent decades. The world today produces about 200 times more plastic than it did in the 1950s. California’s Inquiry Will Investigate”role of companies in perpetuating recycling myths and the extent to which this deception is still ongoingand determine whether their actions violate the law.
The state has issued its first subpoena against ExxonMobil, one of the world’s largest plastic producers. In an email to The edge, Julie King, ExxonMobil operations media manager, called Bonta’s statements “undeserved allegations” that “distract from the important collaborative work underway to improve waste management and improve circularity.”
Despite decades of plastic recycling failure, many companies are still trying to sell consumers products that they say are more sustainable because they use recycled or “recyclable” plastic.
Take In The “Ocean Plastic Mouse” Microsoft Released Last Year collaboration with Saudi Aramco (an oil company) subsidiary Saudi Basic Industries Corporation. About 20 percent of the mouse’s shell is recycled plastic. But all the benefits of using so much recycled content can be negated if the company sells 20 percent more products. In addition, a hot recycled plastics market can keep the virgin plastics market strong, as lower quality recycled plastics are usually reinforced with virgin plastic. Recycling simply cannot make our plastic addiction sustainable.
If companies like ExxonMobil knew (like Exxon knew early that fossil fuels would trigger a climate crisis) and decided to use that misinformation to lure customers anyway, California could ultimately hold them accountable. Comparable lawsuits still find their way through the court.