This story is part of ‘Climate Crimes,’ a special series by the Guardian and Covering Climate Now focused on investigating how the fossil fuel industry contributed to the climate crisis and lied to the American public.
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 litigators hope holding companies accountable for past lies might prevent the spread of a new one.
In late April, California attorney general Rob Bonta launched an investigation into ExxonMobil for its role in exacerbating the global plastic pollution crisis. Bonta says he was partly inspired by a 2020 investigation from NPR and Frontline that showed how companies like ExxonMobil, Chevron, Dow and Dupont were aware of the inefficacy of plastic recycling, yet they still strategized marketing campaigns that told a different story to the public.
For oil companies, those campaigns often included removing themselves from the story altogether. Even some climate advocates forget that plastic, which is made from either petroleum or ethane (a byproduct of fracking), is very much part of the climate crisis. Bonta says his investigation started with ExxonMobil because they’ve been a leader, in the plastics industry and in the messaging around recycling. A report out last year from the Mindaroo Foundation found that just 100 companies produce 90% of the world’s plastic pollution. It pinpointed ExxonMobil as the top producer in the world of single-use plastic.
In a statement responding to the investigation, ExxonMobil said it is “focused on solutions” like building the first “commercial-scale advanced recycling technology” and that “meritless allegations like these distract from the important collaborative work that is under way”.
But like regular old recycling, “advanced recycling” has so far shown little to no results.
Also known as pyrolysis or chemical recycling, the process entails using various chemical processes to turn plastic into other materials. The most common approach is warming plastic at very high heat to turn it into a low-grade fossil fuel, which can then be used either as fuel or as a feedstock for more plastic.
The technology is still in its infancy, but early studies have found that like earlier versions of plastic recycling, the “advanced” method is expensive, and that it’s difficult to collect and effectively recycle a wide variety of plastics. It also delivers few environmental benefits, not just because it’s used to create either fuel or more plastic, but also because the process itself is emissions intensive. One study commissioned by plastic manufacturers themselves found that advanced recycling generated more greenhouse gases than either landfilling plastic or burning it.
The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, a trade group for the chemical industry, has been pushing advanced recycling since China shut its borders to used plastic in 2018. The group has also been lobbying state governments to exempt their recycling process from various environmental regulations – 18 states have laws on the books that either side-step certain government oversight or designate advanced recycling facilities as eligible for subsidies.
It’s part of a strategy former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy called “getting ahead of government intervention” in a video interview with the Greenpeace-funded investigative journalism site UnEarthed in 2021. The journalists went undercover as corporate recruiters and got McCoy talking about various lobbying strategies on climate change. “The issue is going to be disposal and recycling of plastics,” McCoy said in previously unpublished portions of the interview that were shared with the Guardian. He also noted that the ACC has been working on this issue “almost exclusively, because [federal regulators] are talking about banning plastics and a lot of it has to do with plastics in the ocean and in waterways”.
A new report out this week from the groups Beyond Plastics and The Last Beach Cleanup found that plastic recycling rates have actually fallen in the US since the emergence of “advanced recycling” in 2018, from its highest ever point of 9% to less than 6% today, compared with a 66% recycling rate for paper.
“They’re finally kind of admitting that recycling hasn’t worked,” Beyond Plastics president Judith Enck said of groups like ACC and its members that have been lobbying against environmental protections. “And it doesn’t work by design. It’s not like they’re surprised by this. They knew all along it wouldn’t work.”
And the plastic pollution crisis isn’t likely to let up. As Bonta noted in his investigation, the fossil fuel industry has spurred the expansion of plastic for years to come. “It’s their plan B as we reduce the use of fossil fuels in transportation and buildings,” he said. The International Energy Agency has said this as well, predicting that plastic production, which is forecasted to double by 2040, will be the biggest growth market for the oil industry over the next decade.
McCoy noted that oil companies like his former employer ExxonMobil were uniquely suited to handle the increased scrutiny on plastics because they could use the same strategy they have deployed on climate change. “You want to get smart on it, because you know it’s coming,” he said.
Environmental sociologist Dr Rebecca Altman, author of the forthcoming book An Intimate History of Plastics, points to the history of Exxon’s forefather, Standard Oil, as one of the four original companies that created the modern petrochemical industry. Mobil Oil also introduced the plastic grocery bag to American stores. “They really commercialized that and took on the paper bag, which was sort of the last bastion of paper in the US supermarket by the 1970s,” Altman said.
That meant Mobil was also entrenched in the various PR battles that the chemical and energy industries were dealing with in the 1970s. “The [petrochemical] industry was really trying to figure out: how do we show our positive value? And the answer was positive advertising and then working behind the scenes 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 love 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 out of 30 projects operating around the world, all were either still operating on a modest scale or had shut down, and more than half were years behind schedule on previously announced commercial plans. A report from the Natural Resources Defense Council published in March noted that even when it “works” advanced recycling is not an environmentally friendly solution.
Bonta says his investigation will include not only what the industry said about recycling in the past, but also the way it is marketing advanced recycling today. The inquiry may very well broaden to include other companies, or trade groups like the ACC. “We’ll go where the documents lead us,” he said. As to whether the investigation might become a lawsuit, Bonta says that is “absolutely” a possibility. “We’re not investigating just to investigate,” he said.