As waves crashed along the shoreline behind him, California’s attorney general announced in April that he had subpoenaed ExxonMobil, alleging the company helped cause a global plastic pollution crisis while intentionally misleading the public. public for decades.
The oil company has engaged in “historic and ongoing efforts to mislead the public,” Attorney General Rob Bonta said.
While ExxonMobil has denied the allegations, California said the company has pushed petroleum-based plastic products while seeking to downplay public understanding of how widespread use could harm the environment and people. public health.
“The truth is that the vast majority of plastic products – by design – can never be recycled,” Bonta said.
B.C.’s Ministry of Environment did not respond to Black Press Media’s question about whether the province will follow California’s lead, but a spokesperson said it will continue to monitor state actions. The ministry’s response also included a list of provincial actions taken to address plastic pollution, with several touting British Columbia’s recycling systems.
But that’s exactly where the problem lies, according to a University of Victoria legal expert who says plastic producers have pushed the concept of recycling so they can create and sell more products.
“It’s been an excuse for the plastics industry to produce more and more plastic, more and more plastic waste,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Center.
He’s no stranger to the industry using deceptive tactics, as his UVic team helped arrest Keurig for false claims the company was making about its coffee pods being recyclable. Their co-complaint to Canada’s Competition Bureau resulted in Keurig paying a $3 million fine, amending its recyclable claims, and issuing a series of public corrections.
He also points to an NPR and PBS investigation that found oil and plastics companies knew in the 1970s that recycling wouldn’t work on a large scale, but that the concept would allay growing public concerns about plastic waste. This report also cites internal documents showing that these companies lobbied the majority of US states to require the recyclable triangle logo to appear on all plastic items – even if they could not be processed.
It’s that kind of misleading advertising that California is targeting, and Sandborn said Canadian officials need to seriously consider it.
“If the same thing has happened here, and I suspect it has, then the BC Attorney General should consider potentially prosecuting the cost to the government of running a suite of programs for recycling that may have been triggered by misleading claims from the plastics industry. »
It would not be unprecedented for British Columbia to take legal action over fees it had to pay as a result of a company’s proceeds, as Sandborn noted how the province has gone after the industry of tobacco. In 1998, British Columbia sued to recover tobacco-related health care costs stemming in part from the industry’s “misleading promotion of their product”.
Recycle BC’s most recent annual report indicates that among its collectibles, plastics are people’s number one concern. In 2020, 52% of the 63,000 tons of plastic produced were recovered, compared to 46% the previous year.
Recycling should be the last resort after reducing and reusing plastics, Sandborn said. But the industry has said the way forward is better recycling through the expansion of British Columbia’s Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) model nationwide.
“Plastics are key to achieving our sustainability goals,” Elena Mantagaris, vice president of the plastics division of the Chemistry Industry Association of Canada, told Black Press Media. She explained how plastics are needed to make cars more efficient or electric, as well as their uses in renewable energy infrastructure.
The costs falling on city governments with limited budgets have led to underfunding of recycling systems for decades, Mantagaris said. Recycling is necessary to achieve a circular economy, she said, adding that the economy loses about $8 billion a year by burying plastics.
Establishing extended producer responsibility programs 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-layered plastics and new polymer blends — would create economic opportunities and keep items out of the environment, he said. she stated.
But modeled on how a federally commissioned meeting with top plastics executives unfolded, Sandborn’s experiences would call into question the industry’s sincerity in promoting recycling.
“Every time we’ve raised the issue of plastic waste, the response from industry has been ‘Oh, recycling will take care of that.’ a container, it was pushed back.
“Everything gets put back into recycling and then when you’re actually talking about doing something serious to make recycling work, then (the industry) says the public wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “My response was that the public would want us to take care of plastic waste and would probably accept the rules that would make that possible.”
Mantagaris said blaming industry for plastic waste and recycling shortcomings is patently unfair because it has never had control of the recycling system.
But the head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign said oil and plastics companies have never been held accountable for the impacts of their products – while using recycling to minimize health and environmental concerns.
That’s why Sarah King was encouraged to see the California subpoena. She said governments, oil companies and plastic manufacturers all play a role in phasing out reliance on non-essential plastics and fossil fuel-based products. King also wants the province to impose a strict ban on “problematic, unnecessary and polluting plastics.”
“We often think of the plastic pollution crisis as a problem there because the impacts aren’t as visible, but it’s dire in our oceans,” King said. “This is happening all along our coasts and across Canada, and at this point the number of species affected is quite alarming.”
British Columbia is engaging the public in its plan to boost reuse and recycling, as well as potentially ban specific products. King said the plan must focus on reducing plastic production and prioritizing reuse instead of advancing recycling.
The Department for the Environment had no further comment when asked about Sandborn, saying the industry was using recycling to trick consumers into thinking it would offset the increased use of plastic.
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