Undercover Tape: How Exxon Is Lobbying to Make Plastics the Norm

Plastics are also a major and growing contributor to climate change.


 David McNew/Getty Images

Treehugger design editor Lloyd Alter has had it up to here with folks claiming that “100 companies” are responsible for 71% of carbon emissions. And that’s somewhat fair. 

Whether it’s the difference between state-owned versus privately traded fossil fuel interests, or the importance of differentiating between Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (e.g. production- versus consumption-based emissions), the soundbite really does flatten some details that probably shouldn’t be glossed over. It also inspires a certain type of Leftist fatalism that individual behavior changes are entirely irrelevant to the fight against climate change. 

That said, the reason this claim has gotten so much traction is because it does get at an undeniable truth: The fossil fuel industry has been instrumental in shaping the policy, the public discourse, and the industrial landscapes that ultimately shape the choices that individual citizens make—or even the options they have about which choices to make.

When denial failed, oil companies developed a sophisticated playbook for appearing to promote "solutions," as long as those solutions weren’t really going to move the needle on emissions. Exxon has predicated its support for a carbon tax, for example, on a negligible $40 a ton, plus combining it with "significant regulatory simplification"—a code word for avoiding more impactful measures like a ban on fossil fuel-powered cars. 

Now the industry has its sights set on plastics as a growth area, and it’s deploying exactly the same playbook as it did on climate. Faced with growing public concern about marine plastic pollution, litter, and waste, the industry is looking to "engage in conversations" and position itself as the problem solver.  

In the latest Episode 4 of Drilled, Season 6, Part 1—which we previewed here—Amy Westervelt dishes the dirt on a previously unreleased segment of a Greenpeace undercover sting, in which former Exxon lobbyist Keith McCoy explains exactly how the industry is pinning its hopes on plastics. Among the insights revealed by McCoy: 

  • All Exxon facilities being retooled, or just being built, are essentially geared toward plastics.
  • Exxon is working hard to promote plastics recycling as a strategy to divert attention away from bans and regulations.
  • The company is also producing Liquified Natural Gas so it can be shipped to existing plants in Asia and Australia, with an explicit goal of cranking up plastics sales over there. 

None of this is, of course, surprising. Oil and gas companies are in the business of selling oil and gas, and when one area of demand starts to falter, they are going to deploy their vast resources to open new markets. While Alter is right to get frustrated at the use of the “100 companies” line to shirk any sense of individual responsibility, we must also understand the fossil fuel industry is more than capable of both manufacturing demand and skewing the public discourse so we remain focused on calls to "recycle" and "reuse" rather than ban or radically restrict the products that are leading us to ruin.

And by "leading us to ruin," I’m not just referring to the significant problems of marine plastics waste or overloaded landfills. Plastics are also a major and growing contributor to climate change. 

In the episode, Westervelt also talks to Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, who explains that even in a perfect world where plastics plants are running entirely on renewables, the chemical processes themselves result in significant carbon emissions. In fact, plastics are one of the highest emitting of all industrial sectors, and also one of the fastest-growing sectors. By his estimation, plastics alone could contribute as much as 56 metric gigatons of carbon to the global atmosphere by 2050.

So, next time you find yourself using your reusable to-go cup, you can feel happy about doing something to prevent the next big climate crime. Better yet, use the jolt of energy you get from the caffeine to lobby your elected representatives, organize a protest, or otherwise put pressure on the powerful entities who are trying to keep you addicted to plastics.