California Attorney General Subpoenas ExxonMobil, Opens Major Plastic Pollution Investigation

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California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday announced a major investigation into companies that manufacture plastics, the first of its kind in the nation, saying they have engaged in potentially illegal business practices for 50 years by falsely claiming that plastic products are recyclable, while most are not.

Bonta said he was issuing subpoenas against ExxonMobil and other companies, and said the company’s growing plastic pollution problem — especially in the oceans which are littered with billions of tiny pieces of plastic – is something they are legally responsible for and should be ordered to solve.

“In California and around the world, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception,” Bonta said. “Plastic pollution is seeping into our waterways, poisoning our environment and destroying our landscapes. Enough is enough.”

The companies could be held liable under California laws that prohibit fraudulent claims, unfair business practices or environmental pollution, he added.

Many measures of environmental health in the United States have improved in recent decades, from smog levels to the expansion of renewable energy. But plastic pollution is getting worse.

Half of the plastic that has ever existed on Earth was made in the past 20 years. According to the US EPA, only 9% of the plastic sold each year in the United States is recycled. Up to 13 million metric tons end up in the global ocean each year – the equivalent of a full garbage truck being dumped into the sea every minute – where it kills fish, birds, sea turtles, whales and dolphins that eat it or become entangled in it.

Plastic lasts for hundreds of years. Its manufacture consumes large quantities of petroleum products, which contributes to climate change. And at the current rate, a recent study found that there will be more plastic by weight in the ocean in 2050 than fish, most of it split into billions of tiny pieces of toxic confetti.

A recent study found that, on average, each person in the world ingests an average of 5 grams of tiny microscopic plastic each week, the equivalent of a credit card, through the water they drink, the food they she eats – especially seafood – and the air she breathes.

The impacts on human health are unclear.

Bonta’s decision comes amid years of failed efforts by environmentalists in the state legislature to force companies that make plastics to take back the materials or fund programs that recycle them at much higher rates.

In what is expected to be a major showdown with industry and environmental groups later this year, a ballot measure backed by organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium will come before California voters in November to force companies to take these measures.

If approved by a majority of voters, the measure would ban polystyrene, or foam, food packaging, such as clamshell boxes for take-out food, in stores, supermarkets and restaurants. Some cities already have a ban in place, but the ballot measure would make it statewide. In addition, it would impose a 1-cent tax on each plastic wrapper, paid by wrapper manufacturers, which could raise $1 billion or more a year to fund recycling efforts, beach cleanups and other pollution programs throughout the state.

It would also require companies that make plastic packaging — from fast food containers to packaging containing toys and other products in cardboard boxes — to cut the amount they sell in California by 25% by 2030. .

Concretely, this could mean that companies should set up “take-back” programs or fund recycling efforts. They should almost certainly ditch certain types of hard-to-recycle plastic and use less packaging overall.

The measure is contested by the plastics industry. Tim Shestek, spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association that includes major companies such as Dow, DuPont, 3M and ExxonMobil Chemical, last year called the measure a “massive billion-dollar handout funded by taxpayers to fund a variety of pet special interest projects.

He said it threatened small businesses like restaurants and the plastics industry was committed to reducing plastic waste.

“Plastics are essential to the modern way of life,” he said, “and are key to achieving sustainability goals, such as lightweight vehicles, making buildings and homes more energy efficient, and reducing food waste. – all of which contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Bonta, speaking at a mid-morning press conference Thursday at a Los Angeles beach with nearby bags of plastic trash that had recently been picked up on the beach, cited recent investigations, including one by NPR and PBS. Frontline, which showed plastics manufacturing companies knew as early as the 1970s that certain types of plastics would not be economically viable to recycle, but still claimed to avoid pollution laws.

“It was a big trick,” Bonta said. “The big oil executives, they knew the truth. The truth is that the vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled. The truth is that the recycling rate has never exceeded 9%. The truth is that the vast majority of plastic products by design cannot be recycled and 91% end up in landfills, burned or released into the environment.

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