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California is investigating Big Oil for allegedly misleading the public on recycling

The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced it is investigating oil and gas companies for allegedly deceiving the public into believing most plastic could be recycled.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced it is investigating oil and gas companies for allegedly deceiving the public into believing most plastic could be recycled.

Updated at 10:41 p.m. ET

Accusing the country's largest oil and gas companies of "a half-century campaign of deception," California's attorney general opened an investigation Thursday into the possible role the companies played promoting the idea that plastics could be recycled, in an effort to manipulate the public to buy more of it.

Attorney General Rob Bonta said the fossil fuel industry benefited financially from the industry's misleading statements which he said go back decades. Bonta has so far subpoenaed ExxonMobil seeking information and documents.

"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," Bonta said. "The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled."

The announcement cited NPR and the PBS series Frontline's 2020 investigation into the oil and gas industry which uncovered documents showing top officials knew that recycling plastic was unlikely to work but spent tens of millions of dollars telling the public the opposite. Starting in the 1980s, the industry launched dozens of ads, nonprofits, and campaigns touting the benefits of recycling plastic – and placing the responsibility on consumers – even as their own documents warned that recycling was "infeasible" and that there was "serious doubt" that plastic recycling "can ever be made viable on an economic basis," the investigation found.

Graham Forbes, plastics global campaign lead at Greenpeace USA, said California's investigation is welcome news.

"For too long, ExxonMobil and other corporate polluters have been allowed to mislead the public and harm people and the planet," Forbes said. "It is encouraging to see the state of California stand up to the fossil fuel industry. Hopefully, this is a sign that policymakers are ready to start holding corporations accountable."

In a statement, ExxonMobil said it rejects the allegations made by the California attorney general, and highlighted that it is the first company to use what it referred to as an "advanced recycling technology" to recycle used plastic.

"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," the statement said.

The industry group, the American Chemistry Council, said in a statement it is committed to keeping plastic out of the environment and has "proposed comprehensive and bold actions at the state, federal, and international levels."

Industry officials have told NPR in the past that the industry has never misled the public and believes it can make plastic recycling work, though they were not able to specify how. In 40 years, no more than 10 percent of all plastic has ever been recycled.

At a press conference, Bonta said his office's preliminary findings have provided them with enough information to proceed with an investigation.

"We are not prejudging this, but there is information, significant amounts of it, that is compelling and in the public sphere that has led us to a good faith belief that we should be subpoenaing ExxonMobil to get more information," Bonta said. "There is a broad belief that plastics are recyclable. That has been the result of the misinformation campaign, of the deception, that consumers have been manipulated to believe that plastic is recyclable. It was a strategy as far as we can tell."

Officials say the investigation also hopes to determine whether any deception is still ongoing. Critics of the oil industry have raised concerns about the industry's current $1.5 billion effort, which launched in 2019 under the banner "The Alliance to End Plastic Waste" and is made up of the country's largest oil and plastic producers. Through glossy ads and small demonstration projects, the group promotes plastic recycling and clean up efforts rather than using less plastic.

Bonta said his office is eager to move quickly with the investigation and get hold of the documents they are looking for.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.