Accused of misleading the public for decades on the promise of plastic recycling, oil and chemical companies are pushing a new idea: “advanced recycling”. Environmental advocates, however, say it’s more of the same old greenwash and litigants hope holding companies accountable for past lies could prevent the spread of a new one.
In late April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in aggravating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says he was partly inspired by a 2020 survey from NPR and Frontline it showed how companies like Exxon, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficiency of plastic recycling, yet they still strategized marketing campaigns that told a different story to the public.
For decades, Americans sorted their trash, thinking most plastics could be recycled. But the truth is that the vast majority of all produced plastics can’t or won’t be.
An investigation by NPR and PBS found that oil and gas companies knew this all along.https://t.co/i1cpEFwymg
—NPR (@NPR) March 31, 2020
For the oil companies, these campaigns were often about opting out of history altogether. Even some climate advocates forget that plastic, which is made from petroleum or ethane (a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing), is integral to the climate crisis. Bonta says his investigation began with Exxon because they have been a leader in the plastics industry and in messaging around recycling. A report published last year by the Mindaroo Foundation found that just 100 companies produce 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It named Exxon as the world’s largest producer of single-use plastic.
In a statement in response to the inquiry, Exxon said it is “focused on solutions” like building the first “advanced commercial-scale recycling technology” and that “baseless claims like these distract from the important work of ongoing collaboration.
But like plain old recycling, “advanced recycling” has so far yielded little or no results.
Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process involves using various chemical processes to transform plastic into other materials. The most common approach is to heat the plastic to very high temperatures to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used as fuel or as feedstock for more plastic.
The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have shown that, like previous versions of plastic recycling, the “advanced” method is expensive and difficult to efficiently collect and recycle a wide variety of plastics. . It also offers few environmental benefits, not only because it is used to create fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions-intensive. A study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves have found that advanced recycling generates more greenhouse gases than landfilling or burning plastic.
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The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group for the chemical industry, has been promoting advanced recycling since China closed its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also lobbied state governments to they exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations – 18 states have laws in effect that bypass certain government oversights or designate advanced recycling facilities as eligible for subsidies.
It’s part of a strategy that former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy called “outsmarting government intervention” in a video interview with the Greenpeace-funded investigative journalism site. dig up in 2021. The reporters went undercover as corporate recruiters and had McCoy talk about various climate change lobbying strategies. “The problem is going to be the disposal and recycling of plastics,” McCoy said in never-before-seen parts of the interview that were shared with the Guardian. He also noted that the ACC has worked on this issue “almost exclusively, because [federal regulators] talk about banning plastics and it has a lot to do with plastics in the ocean and in waterways.
A new report published this week by the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup revealed that plastic recycling rates have actually fallen in the United States since the emergence of “advanced recycling” in 2018, dropping from its highest level ever from 9% to less than 6% today, compared to a recycling rate of 66% for paper.
A new report from environmental groups Beyond Plastics and Last Beach Clean Up found that the recycling rate in the United States has fallen to between 5% and 6%, from 8.7% reported by the EPA in 2018. pic.twitter.com/36nEAnlwTw
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) May 5, 2022
“They’re finally kind of admitting recycling didn’t work,” Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck spoke about groups like the CCA and its members who have lobbied against environmental protection. “And it doesn’t work by design. It’s not like they were surprised by that. They knew from the start that it wouldn’t work.
And the plastic pollution crisis is not expected to stop. As Bonta noted in his survey, the fossil fuel industry drove plastic expansion for years to come. “It’s their plan B because we reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation and buildings,” he said. The International Energy Agency has also said so, predicting that plastic production, which is expected to double by 2040, will be the oil industry’s biggest growth market over the next decade.
McCoy noted that oil companies like his former employer Exxon were uniquely positioned to handle the increased scrutiny of plastics, as they could use the same strategy they rolled out on climate change. “You want to be smart about it, because you know it’s coming,” he said.
Environmental sociologist Dr Rebecca Altman, author of the forthcoming book “An Intimate History of Plastics”, highlights the story of Exxon’s ancestor, Standard Oil, as one of four original companies that have created the modern petrochemical industry. Mobil Oil also introduced the plastic grocery bag to American stores. “They really commercialized that and embraced the paper bag, which was sort of the last paper bastion in American supermarkets in the 1970s,” Altman said.
This meant that Mobil was also rooted in the various public relations battles that the chemical and energy industries faced in the 1970s. [petrochemical] the industry was really trying to figure out: how do we show our positive value? And the response was positive publicity and then behind-the-scenes work on energy policy and dealing with the first wave of environmental legislation,” Altman said. “And then in the 1980s and 1990s, you have this big recycling boom.”
Bonta says he’d like to see advanced recycling work, but right now it’s just “words on paper.” A 2021 Reuters investigation found several examples of failed advanced recycling programs, noting that of 30 ongoing projects around the world, all were still operating at a modest scale or had been shut down, and more than half were years behind announced commercial plans. previously. A report of the Natural Resources Defense Council published in March noted that even when it “works”, advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution.
♻️ Inside the Recycling Myth: Plastic manufacturers are pushing advanced recycling as an alternative to so-called polluter-pays laws that shift the cost of waste collection from taxpayers to companies that make and use plastic https://t.co/mWrV25FbYD pic.twitter.com/VHhkuPRoSS
— Reuters (@Reuters) July 30, 2021
Bonta says his survey will include not only what the industry has said about recycling in the past, but also how it markets advanced recycling today. The survey may very well expand to include other companies or trade groups like the ACC. “We will go where the documents take us,” he said. As to whether the investigation could turn into a trial, Bonta says that’s “absolutely” a possibility. “We don’t investigate just to investigate,” he said.
This article was written by Amy Westerveltclimate journalist and founder and executive producer of the Critical Frequency podcast network.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the featured photo: plastic pollution. Featured photo credit: Adam Cohn.