Plastics Industry Knew its Products were Polluting Oceans by 1970s, Then Spent Decades Denying Responsibility and Fighting Regulation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
December 5, 2017

Washington, DC — A new report released today by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) examines the plastics industry’s knowledge of the ocean plastics problem, answering the question: When did industry become aware of the problems caused by their products, and what did they do about it? The report, Plastic Industry Awareness of the Ocean Plastics Problem, is the third in the ongoing Fueling Plastics series.

Plastics are pollutants of unique concern, as they do not break down quickly and accumulate in the environment as more is produced. Scientists first became aware of the problem of plastic pollution in the ocean in the 1950s, shortly after the introduction of oil-based plastics in consumer goods. The chemical and petroleum industries were aware of, or should have been aware of, the problems caused by their products by no later than the 1970s, according to the report.

“Unfortunately, the answer to both when the plastic industry knew their products would contribute to massive public harms and what they did with that information suggests they followed Big Oil’s playbook on climate change: deny, confuse, and fight regulation and effective solutions,” says Steven Feit, CIEL Attorney and lead author of Fueling Plastics.

The plastics industry has opposed sustainable solutions and fought local regulations of disposable plastic products for decades, even as evidence of the plastic crisis continues to mount. While the industry acknowledges the problem, plastics producers often take the position that they are only responsible for plastic waste in the form of resin pellets and that all other forms of plastic waste are beyond their control.

“The narrative that consumers bear primary responsibility for the plastics crisis is a public relations myth perpetuated by the petrochemical industry,” continues Feit. “Consumer changes on their own won’t solve the plastics crisis, as hundreds of billions of dollars from the petrochemical industry are being poured into new plastic production. We need a global, binding treaty that regulates plastic pollution throughout its lifecycle, from well head production to ocean waste.”

Countries are currently gathered at the third session of the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA) in Nairobi, Kenya, from December 4 through 6, with a focus on moving “Toward a Pollution-Free Planet.” Under consideration is a resolution on marine litter and microplastics, which could establish a working group that aims to coordinate responses to the plastics crisis.

Contact:
Amanda Kistler, Communications Director, akistler@ciel.org, 202.742.5832.

Notes to editors:

Link to briefing paper: http://www.ciel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Fueling-Plastics-Plastic-Industry-Awareness-of-the-Ocean-Plastics-Problem.pdf
Link to ongoing Fueling Plastics series: http://www.ciel.org/reports/fuelingplastics/