Why the Oil and Chemical Lobby Is Taking Aim at New York’s Plastic Waste Bill

The bill’s passage could be pivotal in the fight to rein in plastics, and the industry knows it.
Analysis
Lindsey J. Smith headshot
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illustration showing cut outs of beakers filled with black plastic and with gray bubbles emerging and flowing right to a large recycling symbol.
Credit: Illustration by Tess Abbot

A version of this piece was originally published by ExxonKnews.

Last week at the New York State Capitol, more than 300 advocates joined lawmakers for a rally to urge the passage of a landmark waste reduction bill that proponents say is the best piece of legislation in the country aimed at lessening plastic trash. The bill is gaining fast momentum — but lobbyists for major oil and chemical companies want to make sure it doesn’t cross the finish line.

The Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act would dramatically cut the amount and toxicity of plastic garbage New Yorkers throw away by targeting the source. It would reduce plastic packaging in New York by half over the next 12 years, and it would prevent a slew of toxic chemicals from being used in those materials. Notably, it would also shift the cost of managing plastic waste from municipal governments and taxpayers to the companies that produce it — including oil majors like ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell. 

The American Chemistry Council (ACC), a trade association for those same chemical and plastic producers, is hoping to prevent that from happening. The ACC is fighting to weaken the bill, which it claims is “overly restrictive” in its definitions of toxic substances and recycling. Its major gripe: the legislation would not allow for “chemical” or “advanced” recycling, a process that would use heat and chemicals to break down plastic waste and supposedly turn it into new plastic. 

“This is not just about enforcement; it’s about creating a more sustainable future where economic and environmental interests are aligned,” wrote Craig Cookson, senior director of plastics sustainability at the ACC, in a January op-ed for the Albany Times-Union. “A good EPR [Extended Producer Responsibility] bill will not only support New York’s mechanical recycling infrastructure; it would also allow for innovation, including science-based advanced recycling solutions.”

Yet experts and advocates agree that chemical recycling doesn’t work, and when it does, is mostly used to create more fossil fuels to be burned. Proponents of New York’s bill, like Beyond Plastics director and former EPA administrator Judith Enck, say the industry is “teeing up a false solution” to distract from and undermine real action. 

“The American Chemistry Council is deathly afraid of effective policies that will actually reduce the production of plastics, because that means less chemicals to be sold to make plastics,” Enck said. “They’re showing up, talking to legislators and saying ‘don’t reduce plastic packaging, we can just send it all to chemical recycling facilities,’ which is a lie. Thankfully they have not succeeded so far.”

New York’s bill is widely supported by activists, a majority of members of both the state Senate and Assembly, and even the mayor of New York City. Its fate, up against the full force of industry lobbying and disinformation, could signal whether these companies can still control the response to the crises they’ve caused — or whether they’re in for a reckoning.

‘Not Just About Enforcement

In recent years, the ACC has ramped up its advertising of chemical recycling technology as a solution to plastic waste as its member companies promise to construct new facilities alongside expanding petrochemical operations across the country.

But an October report by the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) and Beyond Plastics found that only 4 out of the 11 chemical recycling facilities that have been built in the U.S. are fully operational — and even if all of them were fully operating, their combined capacity would represent just 1.3 percent of the plastic waste produced in the country per year.

“Chemical recycling is more of a marketing and lobbying technique than an actual solution to the plastics problem,” Enck said.

Plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the climate and public health crises it creates are growing exponentially, too. Microplastics have been discovered in human blood, lungs, and breastmilk — and most recently in human placentas. As oil and gas majors grow their plastics and petrochemical businesses as a Plan B for expanding fossil fuel operations, putting companies in the driver’s seat does not bode well for actually reducing plastic waste, advocates say.

Still, the ACC will only back a producer responsibility system that would count chemical recycling facilities as recycling and be “directed by the private sector.” New York’s bill, in contrast, would establish a new Office of Inspector General to ensure compliance and an advisory council that would include representatives from environmental justice communities. 

“The American Chemistry Council wants industry to run the program,” said Dawn Henry, a former commissioner for the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources and senior adviser for Beyond Plastics. “We can’t allow that — environmental justice demands that we leverage our political power to stop the plastic industry from polluting, exploiting, and expanding in vulnerable communities.”

Those harms would only be further entrenched by chemical recycling, which is carbon intensive and involves emitting a mess of toxic chemicals and burning hazardous waste, according to Beyond Plastics’ report. Chemical recycling facilities and the materials they produce are often sited and sent to the same communities already most burdened by plastics production, said Henry, because companies “are counting on their low political influence.” Even if New York doesn’t have its own chemical recycling facilities, the ACC’s vision would mean New Yorkers would continue to exacerbate pollution in lower-income communities and communities of color — like Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a 170-mile stretch along the Gulf Coast littered with petrochemical and oil refining facilities sited primarily in Black communities.

“We are in the belly of the beast, and our health is suffering from it,” said Jo Banner, a lifelong resident of St. John the Baptist Parish and co-founder of Louisiana advocacy group The Descendants Project. “I’m not interested in their greenwashing campaigns,” she said of the plastic industry. “At the end of the day, they will only find a new way to poison us.”

Shell’s Norco Manufacturing Complex in Norco, Louisiana. Credit: Abbey Dufoe

A Familiar Strategy 

While campaigning for chemical recycling, the industry is working to kill policies that would actually curb its pollution. The Plastics Industry Association and 53 other companies and trade groups filed an opposition statement against the bill for its bans on toxic substances which they claim is “without sound-scientific basis.” The ACC paid lobbying firms in New York State nearly $250,000 during the 2023 legislative session — increasing its spending by more than half from two years prior. According to Beyond Plastics, the ACC has lobbied to water down producer responsibility bills in at least 10 other states, and has successfully lobbied 24 states to pass laws that weaken environmental protections against chemical recycling processes like pyrolysis and gasification (turning plastics into chemicals or more oil and gas). 

As documented in a new report by the Center for Climate Integrity (of which ExxonKnews is a project), oil and chemical companies and their trade associations have known for decades that plastic recycling was not an effective solution to plastic waste — but colluded to deceive consumers into thinking it was. While telling lawmakers and the public they could just recycle plastic, they flooded the market with it, knowing most would end up in landfills and the ocean. As one Exxon employee told staffers at the American Plastics Council (APC) in 1994 about plastic recycling, “We are committed to the activities, but not committed to the results.”

That remains true today. As was the case with conventional recycling, the companies promoting pyrolysis know it’s a “fundamentally uneconomical process,” as Exxon Chemical Vice President Irwin Levowitz told APC staffers in 1994. The same year, SPI, a plastic industry trade association of which Exxon was a member, tried and failed to get the Oregon Attorney General to count it as real recycling so it could meet its targets in the state.

Yet since that evidence of the industry’s deception was released, the ACC has doubled down. In a statement responding to the CCI report, Ross Eisenberg, president of America’s Plastic Makers (a brand of the ACC), called plastics necessary to “meet our renewable energy, clean water, connectivity, and global health and nutrition goals” and claimed that “investments in advanced recycling can be a game changer to better manage our vital plastic resources.”

“We are advocating for smart public policies that will unleash more investments and create an environment that will help modernize the way plastics are made and remade today and in the future,” Eisenberg said.

Enck says the industry is just continuing to do what it has done for decades — promote false solutions to prevent real ones. “Just like the fossil fuel industry has lied about the impacts of climate change, the American Chemistry Council has lied about the role of conventional recycling for plastics and now they’re lying about chemical recycling,” she said. “They know that lawmakers want to do something to solve the problem, so they keep pushing the narrative that a breakthrough is right around the corner.”

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