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Big Oil, plastics and deception

New report makes the case for legal action over the ‘fraud of plastic recycling’
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Rear view of young male worker in helmet, pollution mask and reflective clothing observing waste falling from conveyor belt on to pile at facility

Big Oil and the plastics industry have created and perpetuated a decades-long campaign of fraud and deception about the recyclability of plastics that has directly fuelled the plastic waste crisis, according to a new report from the Center for Climate Integrity.

The report, ‘The Fraud of Plastic Recycling: How Big Oil and the plastics industry deceived the public for decades and caused the plastic waste crisis’, features never-before-published internal industry sources. 

Legal accountability

The report lays out evidence that could provide the foundation for legal efforts to hold fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies accountable for their lies and deception.

Combining newly unearthed industry documents with existing research, the report shows how fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies have deceptively promoted recycling as a solution to plastic waste management for more than 50 years – despite long-standing internal knowledge that plastic recycling is not technically or economically viable at scale. 

‘This evidence shows that many of the same fossil fuel companies that knew and lied for decades about how their products cause climate change have also known and lied to the public about plastic recycling. The oil industry’s lies are at the heart of the two most catastrophic pollution crises in human history.

‘When corporations and trade groups know that their products pose grave risks to society, and then lie to the public and policymakers about it, they must be held accountable. Accountability means stopping the lying, telling the truth, and paying for the damage they’ve caused.’

CCI president

Petrochemical companies, including oil majors such as ExxonMobil, have long known that, in the words of one 1980s industry report, ‘recycling cannot be considered a permanent solid waste solution [to plastics], as it merely prolongs the time until an item is disposed of.’

The founding director of the Vinyl Institute, an industry trade group, explained to conference attendees in 1989, ‘Recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.’

‘Big Oil and the plastics industry’s decades-long campaign to deceive the public about plastic recycling has likely violated laws designed to protect consumers and the public from corporate misconduct and pollution.

‘Attorneys general and other officials should carefully consider the evidence that these companies defrauded the public and take appropriate action to hold them accountable.’

CCI’s vice president of legal and general counsel

An Eastman Chemical Company employee in 1992 admitted that, ‘it is more likely that we will wake up and realise that we are not going to recycle our way out of the solid waste issue.’

Discussing the industry’s commitment to plastic recycling demonstration projects, an Exxon employee told staffers at the American Plastics Council in 1994, ‘we are committed to the activities, but not committed to the results.’

An APC staffer’s notes from 1995 highlighted the fact that recycled plastic cannot compete in the market with virgin material: ‘virgin supplies will go up sharply in near future and kick the shit out of PCR prices.’

‘Despite their long-standing knowledge that recycling plastic is neither technically nor economically viable, petrochemical companies—independently and through their industry trade associations and front groups—have engaged in fraudulent marketing and public education campaigns designed to mislead the public about the viability of plastic recycling as a solution to plastic waste. These efforts have effectively protected and expanded plastic markets, while stalling legislative or regulatory action that would meaningfully address plastic waste and pollution. Fossil fuel and other petrochemical companies have used the false promise of plastic recycling to exponentially increase virgin plastic production over the last six decades, creating and perpetuating the global plastic waste crisis and imposing significant costs on communities that are left to pay for the consequences.’


California investigates ExxonMobil

Two years ago, California Attorney General Rob Bonta publicly launched an investigation ‘into the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries for their role in causing and exacerbating the global plastics pollution crisis.’

Bonta’s office announced that it subpoenaed oil giant ExxonMobil, the world’s biggest producer of single-use plastic polymers.

‘Big Oil’s playbook has always been clear: perpetuate the cycle of waste by pushing plastic recycling as a false solution. Plastic recycling was never the solution we were all led to believe. Instead, it only downcycling plastics, compounding up plastic chemicals as materials are broken down to be built back up again, causing untold damage to our planet and our health.
‘For far too long, petrochemical giants have deceived us, choosing profit over planet and steering us away from sustainable alternatives and bans. The curse of such mindless convenience must come to an end. True circularity is not about recycling. The only real solution is to do away with single use plastic altogether and replace it with returnable standardised packaging and true natural alternatives. The plastic industry has been caught red-handed and it’s time to hold them to account.’

Co-founder of A Plastic Planet and PlasticFree

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