Updated Apr 29, 2022 - Energy & Environment

California subpoenas ExxonMobil in plastics pollution probe

Photo of a gray stone sign with the ExxonMobil logo etched into it
An entrance to the ExxonMobil Spring campus as seen on Feb. 1, 2022 in Houston, Texas. Photo: Brandon Bell via Getty Images

California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Thursday that his office has subpoenaed ExxonMobil as part of an investigation into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries' role in "causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis."

Why it matters: The U.S. only recycles about nine percent of produced plastics, according to estimates from the Environmental Protection Agency. Much of our plastic waste, which takes hundreds of years to decompose, ends up in waterways and poses a major threat to marine life and ecosystems.

  • The oil used to make petrochemicals for plastics is a major source of the growth in the demand for oil, Axios' Ben Geman notes.

Details: Bonta is accusing the industries of aggressively promoting the development of oil-based plastic products and deceiving the public about their harmful impacts.

  • ExxonMobil is a leading source of single-use plastic waste, according to a 2021 analysis by Australian philanthropic group the Minderoo Foundation.

What they're saying: "In California and across the globe, we are seeing the catastrophic results of the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long campaign of deception," Bonta said in a statement.

  • "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%," he said. "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."
  • Bonta did not say which other companies are also a target of the probe.

The other side: "We reject the allegations made by the Attorney General’s office in its press release," ExxonMobil spokesperson Casey Norton said in a statement to Axios.

  • "We share society’s concerns and are collaborating with governments, including the State of California, communities and other industries to support projects around the world to improve waste management and circularity."
  • "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," Norton added, pointing to a new technology deployed by the company that converts a range of used plastic to raw materials which can then be used to make new plastic.

The big picture: Plastic pollution in oceans and other bodies of water could more than double by 2030, according to an October assessment by the UN Environment Programme.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include a statement from ExxonMobil.

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