California’s attorney general has announced an unprecedented investigation into the fossil fuel industry — not for its knowledge about climate change, but for its role in causing the global plastics pollution crisis. 

In a press release on Thursday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta accused fossil fuel and petrochemical companies of disingenuously promoting recycling, even though they knew it would never be able to keep up with growing plastic production. “Enough is enough,” Bonta said in a statement. “For more than 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.” 

As part of the investigation, the attorney general’s office has issued a subpoena to Exxon Mobil for information relating to its alleged role in a “decades-long plastics deception campaign,” and seeks to determine if the plastic industry’s actions have violated California state law.

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In response to Grist’s requests for comment, both Exxon Mobil and the American Chemistry Council, a plastics industry trade group, said they rejected Bonta’s allegations and vowed to remain focused on improving waste management, including through better plastic recycling.

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Whatever the investigation’s findings, it’s clear that the world’s recycling infrastructure has failed miserably to deal with the past several decades’ proliferation of plastic. Between 1950 and 2015, the world produced some 5.8 billion metric tons of plastic waste and only recycled 9 percent of it. The vast majority of the rest has either been littered or is accumulating in the world’s landfills, where it takes hundreds of years to degrade and leaches hazardous chemicals into the soil and groundwater. A smaller amount has been incinerated — but that too causes problems, as burned plastic clogs the air with nasty pollutants that are linked to lung disease, heart problems, and cancer.

Efforts to get at the root of the problem by limiting plastic production have faced opposition for decades from the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries, which insisted to the public that more and better recycling infrastructure could deal with a growing glut of plastic. However, documents unveiled in a 2020 investigation from NPR and PBS Frontline suggest they were lying through their teeth. One industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech that there was “serious doubt” that recycling plastic “can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

In other words, the industry correctly predicted decades ago that it would be too expensive to sort, clean, and recycle vast quantities of plastic. Plus, because plastic degrades every time it’s reused, it can only be successfully recycled once or twice before it’s unrecoverable.

The California attorney general’s office argues that disingenuous recycling campaigns allowed the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries to dramatically ramp up plastic production, threatening people’s health and the environment at every stage of plastics’ life cycle. Globally, plastic manufacturing releases greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming and air pollution that disproportionately harms low-income communities and communities of color. In California, cleanup and waste reduction efforts burden local governments with more than $400 million annually as they struggle to keep plastic pollution out of waterways, beaches, and the ocean. And all the pollution that slips between the state’s fingers can strangle wildlife, mar the landscape, and degrade into microplastics — tiny shards of trash — that are now findings their way into people’s lungs and bloodstreams.

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Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and the founder of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics, said Bonta’s investigation is a “long-overdue” opportunity to shine a light on fossil fuel and petrochemical companies’ deceptive practices. Probes from investigative reporters and watchdog organizations into the fossil fuel industry’s knowledge of global warming have yielded compelling documentation of its efforts to undermine climate science. 

“If this investigation accomplishes one thing — to get the plastics industry to stop lying about recycling — that would be extremely helpful,” Enck told Grist. She added that a successful effort from the attorney general’s office could escalate to a lawsuit and force companies to face fines and penalties. It could also create an evidentiary basis for more investigations in other jurisdictions — including at the federal level.

“All eyes will be on the California AG’s office,” Enck said. “I think they’re going to have a lot to work with.”