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May 13, 2022
California probes plastic pollution

On Thursday, April 28, 2022, California Attorney General (AG) Rob Bonta announced his office is launching an investigation to hold the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries accountable for their alleged role in creating and continuing a global plastic 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,” states Bonta’s press release.  “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.”

Exxon Mobil denied the accusations, says the Los Angeles Times.

“We reject the allegations made by the attorney general’s office in its press release,” says Julie L. King, a spokeswoman for the corporation. “We are focused on solutions and meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is underway to enhance waste management and improve circularity.”

“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,” Bonta’s press release adds. “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.”

Petrochemical and fossil fuel companies are advised to take note of this action, as ExxonMobil is merely the first company called to the carpet.

Plastic production

In the 1950s, worldwide plastic production equaled 2 million tons. By 2015, that number increased to 381 million tons, which is equivalent to approximately the mass of two-thirds of the world’s population, says Our World in Data.

“As fossil fuel continues to be replaced by clean energy sources, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies have doubled down on plastics production, recently investing an additional $208 billion to expand plastic production worldwide,” Bonta’s press release continues. “Plastics production is already a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, and the planned expansion of fossil-fuel based production runs counter to efforts to address the climate crisis through a transition to clean energy.”

With a growing green grid and electric vehicles becoming a reality, plastics are the next growth market for the fossil fuel industry, CNBC says.

“Plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, are set to drive nearly half of oil demand growth by midcentury, according to the International Energy Agency,” adds CNBC. “Yet much of the developed world is already awash in plastics. So, fossil fuel and petrochemical companies are relying on emerging economies in Asia and Africa to drive growth.”

The problem with plastic

Plastic is a unique product, with benefits that include:

  • Cheap to produce
  • Versatile
  • Resistant to breaking
  • Waterproof
  • Nonreactive
  • Lightweight
  • Maintains food safety and quality
  • Reduces food waste

“In general, plastic tends to be cheap and has significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions, energy, water and fertilizer inputs than alternatives such as paper, aluminum, cotton or glass,” says Our World in Data. “The obvious environmental detriment is its pollution of the natural environment when poorly managed.”

The world does not seem to be able to sustainably manage plastic waste.

“The rapidly increasing production of single-use plastic products has long overwhelmed the world’s ability to manage them,” Bonta’s press release notes. “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.”

Worldwide, there is about 6.3 billion tons of plastic trash, which is roughly the size of 55 jumbo jets, National Geographic says. Of that amount, 79 percent of the plastic trash ends up in the environment or in landfills rather than being recycled.

“Plastic does not fully degrade, instead breaking down into smaller pieces called microplastics,” continues Bonta’s press release. “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.”

Accountability

Bonta’s probe is hinged upon documentation that points to alleged deceptive advertising practices and allegations that fossil fuel companies were aware recycling would not be a sustainable answer.

“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,” Bonta’s press release adds. 

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 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.”

Solutions

Ultimately, responsibility for properly disposing of plastic is up to the individual consumer. Unfortunately, that has not proven to be an effective answer, as environments worldwide are littered with plastic pollution.

And, even when plastic is properly disposed of, it sits in landfills, where it never completely dissolves.

As technologies advance, new solutions for dealing with plastic waste continue to emerge and evolve. Some of these solutions include:

1. Incentivize plastic collection.

Once upon a time, people picked up glass coke bottles and turned them in for a small refund. People save aluminum cans and turn them into the recycling yards for small sums of money. What if the same idea were applied to plastic items?

Some experts believe if plastic were valuable, people would pick it up and turn it in to earn a small amount of money.

2. Clean up our oceans and rivers.

Utilize emerging technology to more efficiently and economically clean up plastic pollution in oceans. The Ocean Cleanup has developed Systems 001 and 002 to collect plastic in oceans and Interceptor systems to collect plastic pollution at the mouths of rivers before the plastic enters the ocean.

Environment International published the article “Plastic pollution solutions: emerging technologies to prevent and collect marine plastic pollution” in November 2020. Highlights from the article include:

  • “Technology can be used to target hotspots of marine plastic pollution.”
  • “The Inventory is a tool to identify plastic pollution prevention and cleanup technologies.”
  • “Fifty-two inventions focus on preventing plastic leakage or collecting marine plastics.”
  • “Technology alone cannot solve the plastics pollution issue.”
  • “The Inventory underscores the importance of cross-sector collaborations.”
  • Use plastic-eating bacteria.

Research reveals that there are bacteria that can be utilized to target and degrade specific types of plastic.

In 2016, Japanese scientists discovered the Ideonella sakaiensis bacteria, which are capable of decomposing PET plastic, which is commonly used in plastic bottles.

“However, experts caution that large-scale commercial use of plastic-eating microorganisms is still years away, while their potential release in the environment, even if practical, could create more issues than it solves,”  Forbes notes.

3. Use in road-paving materials.

Unrecyclable plastics are already being used to replace the amount of oil used in road-paving materials.

“As well as ensuring these plastics don't go to landfill, incinerator or the ocean, there is some evidence that the plastic also helps the road function better,” BBC says. “Adding plastic to roads appears to slow their deterioration and minimize potholes. The plastic content improves the surface's flexibility, and after 10 years Vasudevan's earliest plastic roads showed no signs of potholes. Though as many of these roads are still relatively young, their long-term durability remains to be tested.”

4. Discontinue the use of plastic packaging.

Some conservationists believe sustainable packaging is the answer where plastic-free packaging is required. However, these alternatives typically cost more to produce, place more demand on natural resources such as timber, and have higher emissions during the production process.

Industry’s role

Bonta is not alone in wanting to hold industry responsible for plastic pollution.  Many experts and conservationists believe industry should play a large part in cleaning up plastic pollution, as these companies produce the products and profit from the sale of items utilizing plastic.

The World Wildlife Fund published a report entitled “No Plastic in Nature: A Practical Guide for Business Engagement,” which advocates for four corporate activities to combat plastic pollution:

  • Maximizing impact through strategic alignment, purposeful organizational design, and intense but selective collaboration;
  • Designing products, packaging, and distribution models to improve recycling and recovery rates and to ensure robust end markets for recycled materials;
  • Tailoring interventions to engage consumers; and
  • Improving and innovating the existing collection and recovery infrastructure and growing it further.
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