What John Oliver missed about plastics
As plastics kick the climate crisis into overdrive, we’re watching the actions of a major player: Big Oil.
Emily Sanders is editorial lead for the Center for Climate Integrity. You can catch up with her on Twitter here.
Plastic pollution is back on our brains again, thanks to a widely-viewed John Oliver segment on the realities of plastic waste and the myth of recycling (featuring a uniquely creepy Niagara Falls recycling mascot).
While Oliver was right to call out the lies circulating around plastics, he left out a key player in the plastic pollution crisis: Big Oil. Here’s what you need to know.
Big Oil is heavily invested in the future of single-use plastics.
Fossil fuels are falling out of favor, and Big Oil is banking hard on plastics as a way to keep their business alive.
What do fossil fuels have to do with plastics? Plastic production relies on a component of natural gas called ethane, which is released during fracking. Lo and behold, oil industry giants like Exxon and Shell are hard at work constructing hundreds of new ethane cracker facilities and other petrochemical projects across America that will drastically increase plastic output — with much of the chemical byproducts shipped overseas.
Ethane cracker plants will blast the atmosphere with the same carbon pollution that causes catastrophic climate change. Just two of these super-emitters — one being built by Shell on the Ohio River, and the other by Exxon in Baytown, Texas — would produce annual carbon emissions equal to about 800,000 new cars on the road.
“If plastic production and use grows as currently planned, by 2030 the emissions will be the equivalent of the carbon emissions from 295 new coal-fired power plants,” says Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and a former EPA Regional Administrator during the Obama administration, who previously served as the Center for Climate Integrity’s senior advisor. “I think people don’t understand that. It’s taken over 50, 60 years to shut down coal-fired power plants, and now we’re seeing these ethane cracker plants where the carbon emissions will be just as significant.”
Oil executives are intertwined with plastic industry associations — and they’re lobbying to fight regulation and ship waste overseas.
Oil and gas executives are on the boards of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and industry trade associations like the American Chemistry Council that are leveraging their immense lobbying power to attack and preempt local regulation to curb and ban plastic pollution at the outset.
Last year, documents uncovered by the New York Times found that Big Oil lobbied U.S. trade negotiations with the goal of getting Kenya to reverse its bans on importing plastics, allowing oil companies to continue mass producing plastics whose overflowing waste would be dumped overseas.
Today, the petrochemical industry continues to dump and incinerate plastic primarily in low-income communities and communities of color, releasing toxic chemicals into those communities’ water and air, and pumping the atmosphere with carbon emissions. But Big Oil and other plastic producers don’t take on the costs of plastic waste, which breaks down into microplastics in our food and water that are linked to cancer, hormonal issues and developmental delays — and are ingested by humans at a rate of 5 grams, or the size of a credit card, per week.
Big Oil was an essential player in spreading lies about recycling.
As documents uncovered by NPR and PBS Frontline revealed, oil industry insiders knew as early as 1974 that “there is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis"— even today, over 90% of plastics can’t be recycled in the U.S. But Big Oil spent millions of dollars on advertising, lobbying and P.R. to convince consumers otherwise.
Beginning in 1989, oil industry executives lobbied nearly 40 states to include the “chasing arrow” recycling symbol on all plastic packaging — regardless of whether that packaging was truly recyclable. They then helped carry out a massive marketing campaign to spread the message that consumer behavior is the driver behind the massive quantities of single-use plastic shipped and dumped overseas and taking over our oceans, landfills and communities.
"If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment," Larry Thomas, a former top industry insider, told NPR. Or in the words of John Oliver: “Lies go down easier when you want them to be true.”
“Not long ago, there was this shift where companies started talking about peoples’ personal carbon footprint — as if the problem was not the smokestack or the tailpipe, but just your bad behavior,” Enck said. “And now I’m seeing the phrase plastic footprint. ‘If you just recycle your plastics, we’re not gonna have so much in the ocean.’ This narrative suggests that we don’t need systemic solutions.”
John Oliver highlighted this ad by Keep America Beautiful, an initiative funded by plastic industry associations — including oil company giants like Exxon, Chevron and Shell as members.
Last week, Representative Alan Lowenthal and Senator Jeff Merkley introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, which aims to institute a three-year pause on the construction of any new plastic production facilities, giving time for the EPA to catch up with regulations; require producers to finance end-of-life programs to manage plastic waste; ban some of the most harmful single use plastics; create safeguards around microplastic pollution; and ban the shipment of plastic waste to developing countries, among other provisions.
Of course, the bill is already being met with resistance from these same trade associations who claim that their “recycling efforts” should preclude them from regulation. It’s another reminder that corporate polluters that endanger our communities don’t deserve a seat at the table to negotiate solutions to the problems they knowingly caused.
We hope that’s something Congress keeps in mind as they consider the industry’s input on the new climate and infrastructure plans President Biden released this week.
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