As waves crashed along the shoreline behind him, California’s attorney general in April announced he subpoenaed ExxonMobil, alleging the company helped cause a global plastic pollution crisis while it intentionally deceived the public for decades.
The oil company engaged in “historic and ongoing efforts to deceive the public,” attorney general Rob Bonta said.
While ExxonMobil denied the allegations, California said the company pushed petroleum-based plastic products while seeking to minimize public understanding about how widespread use could harm the environment and public health.
“The truth is, the vast majority of plastic products – by design – cannot ever be recycled,” Bonta said.
B.C.’s Ministry of Environment didn’t answer Black Press Media’s question on whether the province will follow California’s direction, but a spokesperson said they will continue to monitor the state’s actions. The ministry’s response also included a list of provincial actions taken on tackling plastic pollution, with several of those touting B.C.’s recycling systems.
But the latter is exactly where the problem lies, according to one University of Victoria law expert who says plastic producers pushed the concept of recycling so they could create and sell more products.
“It’s been a pretext for the plastic industry to produce more and more plastic, more and more plastic waste,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of Environmental Law Centre.
He’s no stranger to the industry using misleading tactics, as his UVic team helped bust Keurig for false claims the company was making about its coffee pods being recyclable. Their co-complaint to the Competition Bureau of Canada led to Keurig having to pay a $3 million fine, change its recyclable claims and issue a series of public corrections.
He also points to an NPR and PBS investigation that found oil and plastic companies knew in the ’70s that recycling wouldn’t work on a broad scale, but the concept would quell growing public concern around plastic waste. That report also cited internal documents showing those companies lobbied the majority of U.S. states to mandate that the recyclable triangle logo appear on all plastic items – even if they couldn’t be processed.
It’s that kind of deceptive advertising that California is targeting and Sandborn said Canadian officials need to look at it seriously.
“If the same thing has happened here, and I suspect it has, then the attorney general of British Columbia should be looking at potentially suing for the cost to government of running a bunch of recycling programs that may have been triggered by deceptive statements by the plastics industry.”
It wouldn’t be unprecedented for B.C. to sue for costs it had to pay due to a company’s product, as Sandborn noted how the province took on the tobacco industry. In 1998, B.C. launched a lawsuit to recover tobacco-related health care costs stemming in part from the industry’s “deceptive promotion of their product.”
Recycle BC’s most recent annual report said among its collectables, plastics are people’s main concern. In 2020, 52 per cent of the 63,000 tonnes of plastics produced were recovered, up from 46 per cent the year before.
Recycling should be the last resort after reducing and reusing plastics, Sandborn said. But the industry said the way forward is better recycling through expanding B.C.’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model nationwide.
“Plastics are critical to achieving our sustainability goals,” Elena Mantagaris, vice-president of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada’s plastic division, told Black Press Media. She referenced how plastics are needed for making cars more efficient or electric, as well as their uses in renewable energy infrastructure.
Costs falling onto municipal governments with constrained budgets have led to recycling systems being underfunded for decades, Mantagaris said. Recycling is needed to achieve a circular economy, she said, adding that the economy loses out on about $8 billion a year by landfilling plastics.
Putting extended producer responsibility programs in place across Canada would provide a consistent feedstock that would make scaling up recycling more economical, Mantagaris said. That and investing in new sorting facilities and advanced recycling technology – sites that process flexible, multi-layer and new polymer blend plastics – would create economic opportunities and keep items out of the environment, she said.
But drawing from how a federally commissioned meeting with major plastic executives went, Sandborn’s experiences would question how genuine the industry is about advancing recycling.
“Every time we raised the problem related to plastic waste, the industrial response was ‘Oh, well recycling will take care of it.’” When he brought up how robust recycling would need producers to do things like stop using different types of plastic in one container, he was met with pushback.
“Everything is put off to recycling and then when you actually talk about doing something serious about making recycling work, then (the industry) says the public wouldn’t allow that,” he said. “My response was the public would want us to deal with plastic waste and would probably go along with rules that made it possible.”
Mantagaris said blaming industry for plastic waste and recycling’s shortcomings is blatantly unfair because it never had control over the recycling system.
But Greenpeace Canada’s head of oceans and plastics campaign said oil and plastic companies have never been held accountable for the impacts of their products – while using recycling to downplay health and environmental concerns.
That’s why Sarah King was encouraged to see the California subpoena. She said governments, oil companies and plastic makers all play a role in phasing out reliance on non-essential plastics and fossil-fuel-based products. King also wants the province to put a strong ban on “problematic, unnecessary and polluting plastics.”
“We often think about the plastic pollution crisis as an over-there problem because the impacts aren’t quite as visible, but the situation is dire in our oceans,” King said. “It’s happening all along our coasts and across Canada, and at this point the number of species impacted is quite alarming.”
B.C. is in a process of engaging the public on its plan to strengthen reuse and recycling, along with potentially banning specific products. King said that plan needs to be focused on reducing plastic production and prioritizing reuse instead of advancing recycling.
The Ministry of Environment had no further comment when asked about Sandborn saying industry used recycling to make consumers believe it would offset more plastic use.
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