The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is saturated with ironic twists as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaks its history-making path of havoc across the world. One example is the impact the novel coronavirus has had on efforts to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. Here in the U.S., concerns over infection may have motivated some jurisdictions to suspend, reverse, or relax hard-won bans on plastic bags. The question is, is this a temporary setback or a new chance at life for the petrochemical industry?
There are some good indications that the setback is strictly temporary, and simply delays the inevitable.
New York State is a good case in point. The state is an epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., so it is reasonable to assume that state officials are particularly sensitive to the potential for enabling the virus to continue spreading.
Coincidentally, a newly passed statewide ban on single-use bags went into effect on March 1, just as the virus began to take hold. As reported by Sophia Chang of Gothamist, the ban was supposed to be enforced starting on May 15. However, last week the New York State Supreme Court delayed that starting date until June 15.
If that sounds like good news for single-use plastic bag stakeholders, it’s not. The Supreme Court directive was not motivated by concerns that the single-use plastic bag ban would enable COVID-19 to spread. It was simply because the courts in New York are closed in order to adhere to the state's social distancing guidelines.
As the Albany Times Union reported, the Supreme Court directive grew out of a lawsuit brought against New York by a plastic bag manufacturer.
“Because the courts have all but closed down due to the coronavirus pandemic, both sides in the suit agreed to hold off enforcing the ban until June,” the Times Union explained.
Similarly, the COVID-19 outbreak has had an impact on some recycling programs, as government offices and facilities have closed for all but essential functions. In other words, the mere fact that some jurisdictions have rolled back regulations against plastic bags is not evidence of concern that reusable or paper bags involve a greater threat to public health.
In fact, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is responsible for enforcing the ban, has continued to carry guidance on keeping reusable bags clean and sanitary on its website, as does the New York Department of Health.
The ongoing concern, virus or not, is bacterial cross-contamination between meat and produce. That is not a matter specific to reusable bags, as it could occur if different items are commingled in a single-use plastic bag as well.
On April 10, well into the New York outbreak, the state’s Department of Agriculture also provided detailed guidance for grocery stores on preventing COVID-19 infection. Providing single-use plastic bags to customers did not make the list.
Chang also cites two academic health experts who back up New York’s position on the use of reusable bags during this time.
Similarly, on March 26, Canada’s CBC News interviewed a health expert who noted that reusable bags were not considered a risk factor, and that shoppers should wash hands in order to help contracting or spreading COVID-19 regardless of what bag they use.
Nevertheless, the plastic industry’s stakeholders and supporters have been quick to portray single-use plastic bags as a preventive measure against COVID-19, compared to reusable bags.
For example, on March 12 the publication City Journal carried an article arguing that reusable bags spread “deadly viral and bacterial diseases” including COVID-19. City Journal, though, is produced by the think tank Manhattan Institute, which bills itself as a “leading free-market think tank” and has received substantial funding over the years from the Koch brothers.
The article was written by City Journal contributing editor John Tierney, whose work for the publication is characterized by criticism of government-sponsored science.
In a 2016 article supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump, for example, Tierney wrote that President Obama’s appointees to the CDC and FDA “used junk science—or no science—to justify misbegotten crusades against dietary salt, trans fats, and electronic cigarettes.”
Despite the lack of evidence for any impact on public health, some grocery stores may still prefer to provide single-use plastic bags for their customers, in order to avoid having their employees handle items that shoppers have brought from home.
That is a matter of employee relations, and it is understandable considering how much is yet to be known about how COVID-19 spreads.
Somewhat ironically, though, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17 actually indicates that if anything, plastic bags may involve measurably greater risk than cloth.
The study demonstrated that the novel coronavirus was detectable on a plastic surface for up to 72 hours, a significantly longer period of time than on copper or cardboard surfaces — though in any case, barely any of the original virus remained on any of the surfaces tested.
Nevertheless, in a letter to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar dated March 18 and obtained by Politico, the Plastic Industry Association pushed back, asking the agency to “speak out against bans on [plastic] products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk.”
Despite the reference to risk, the science does not support the Plastic Industry Association’s case.
Just as importantly, the demographics do not support it, either.
The all-important Millennial generation — which spans younger adults who are more likely to survive the COVID-19 virus — is also the largest group currently contributing to the waste stream, and the least likely to recycle according to some studies. However, the Millennial generation is also increasingly focused on environmental stewardship and zero waste as a lifestyle.
If single-use plastic bags are a symbol of the consumer response to the COVID-19 crisis, then it is all the more likely that once the immediate crisis is past, reusable bags will become the symbol of recovery, and a symbol of the movement toward a more healthy and sustainable future.
Image credit: Peter Uetz/Wiki Commons
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.