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Plastic bags were finally being banned. Then came the pandemic.

Single-use plastics are all over the front lines of the Covid-19 response.

Two supermarket employees wear masks and gloves as they stand behind a protective plastic screen
Covid-19 has put supermarkets on the front lines, and bans on plastic bags are being rolled back or paused. Some states are even banning reusables.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In a back room at his home in Santa Cruz, California, George Leonard is amassing a stockpile of plastic bags.

Most of the time, he eschews the things. As chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, DC, Leonard spends his time campaigning against single-use plastics that can clog up waterways, suffocate wildlife, and take centuries to decompose in landfills.

But that was in the Before Times. Since the Covid-19 pandemic upended life across the globe, ravaging economies and bringing entire health care systems to their knees, everyone is being forced to compromise. Retailers are banning consumers from bringing in their own reusable bags, cities and states are rolling back or delaying single-use plastic bans, and municipalities are scaling back recycling operations, with hygiene fears underlying it all.

With plastic production already projected to increase by 40 percent over the next decade, campaigners like Leonard fear the pandemic could unravel hard-fought measures to pare back the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters our oceans every year.

The signs so far haven’t been reassuring: Customers at Target, for instance, are no longer able to bring in their own bags “out of an abundance of caution, and until further notice,” a spokesperson told The Goods, using an oft-repeated phrase. The retailer’s in-store recycling kiosks are similarly on hiatus. In early March, the coffee juggernaut Starbucks announced that its baristas would no longer accept customer-proffered mugs. Dunkin’ (née Donuts) quickly followed suit.

One by one, the coronavirus knocked long-planned measures off course. In April, New York state announced that its plastic bag ban, which was poised to take effect May 15, would be postponed to mid-June at the earliest. Massachusetts, Maine, and Oregon are deferring similar state laws. New Hampshire has required all grocers to “temporarily transition” to single-use paper or plastic bags only. Even San Francisco, one of the first US cities to outlaw disposable plastic bags in 2007, issued an edict at the end of March preventing businesses from “permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.” Grocers and retailers in the Golden State are no longer required to charge the previously mandatory 10 cents per disposable bag. And if stores want to stop accepting recyclable bottles, they’re free to do so.

Many of these actions are necessary to protect the health of front-line workers who continue to check out groceries, collect trash, and sort through mounds of recycling despite the threat of infection.

“I think they’re the appropriate thing to do,” Leonard says. “But we’re also really worried about whether this pushes us back 10 years in terms of the real progress that has been made to reduce plastic consumption and use, particularly in grocery stores.”

Polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam, the non-recyclable plastic that was being phased out pre-pandemic, is having a resurgence as manufacturers such as Ineos Styrolution in Germany and Trinseo in the US see “double-digit percentage sales increases” in the food packaging and health care sectors, Bloomberg Green reports.

The pandemic could even reshape long-term behavior. In a 17-page draft document currently under review, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that reopening restaurants switch to disposable menus, plates, and utensils, and swap in single-portion condiments. Who knows how long these and other policies will stick?

Environmentalists also claim that the plastics industry is exploiting Covid-19 fears to demonize reusables as potential vectors for the virus, despite scientific evidence that the contagion can survive for days on plastic surfaces, meaning they’re not any safer than your cotton NPR tote or stainless steel Yeti tumbler.

In a letter dated March 18 to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, asked the department to “speak out against bans on these 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.”

Indeed, the plastics industry is currently waging a “PR war” through front groups, corporate-funded research, and misrepresented medical studies in an effort to repeal existing and upcoming bans, says John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace’s oceans campaign. Cratering oil prices, which makes virgin plastic cheaper to churn out than ever, aren’t helping.

“The plastic industry has really treated the Covid-19 emergency as an opportunity and is preying on people’s fear to scare them into believing that single-use plastic is the best way to stay safe,” Hocevar says. “And so far, there isn’t any independent scientific research that supports that.”

Unlike disposable plastics, reusable bags and cups, he says, can be easily disinfected by washing with regular soap and hot water or throwing them in the dishwasher. Grocers might consider letting shoppers bag their own groceries or placing checked-out produce back in the cart so shoppers can load them straight into bins or bags in their cars.

For Hocevar, personal protective equipment (like disposable face masks and gloves) and single-use packaging, discarded carelessly and left to flutter around the environment, pose the bigger threat to public health (not to mention generate even more plastic pollution.)

“I also have concerns about the sanitation workers having to handle so much of this single-use plastic, including PPE, but also food and beverage packaging and bags,” he says.

Because we’re staying at home more, we’re generating more trash

Disposable plastic bags are only the tip of the landfill, though without comprehensive audits it’s impossible to suss out with any certainty if plastic consumption in the country is going up, headed down, or canceling itself out as reduced plastic employment by idling businesses makes up for increasing residential use. But we can extrapolate some trends.

With most restaurants shuttered and Americans hunkered down at home amid widespread lockdowns, takeout and food delivery services — which often employ disposable plastic containers — have skyrocketed in popularity. In the first quarter of 2020, the delivery marketplace Grubhub netted $363 million, a 12 percent jump in revenue over the same period last year. Its number of active diners currently hovers at around 23.9 million, a 24 percent increase from the 19.3 million who placed orders in the first quarter of 2019.

Amazon, which shipped more than 3 billion packages a year pre-pandemic, saw its revenue spike by 26 percent to $75.5 billion in the first three months of 2020 after it became a lifeline for shelter-at-homers scrambling for essential goods (toilet paper, Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer) and not-so-essential ones (sex toys, apparently). Most of those deliveries will come swaddled in plastic air pillows, shrink wrap, and polybags.

Working and schooling from home has produced other consequences. Americans are now generating up to 30 percent more trash on a regular basis, says David Biderman, executive director and CEO of Solid Waste Association of North America, a Maryland-based trade group of private and public sector professionals. Some communities — between 60 and 80, by Bideman’s count — across the country have placed their curbside recycling programs on hold because they’re struggling to devote more staffing power to keep up with the increased residential tonnage. Several material-recovery facilities (or MRFs, pronounced “merfs” in industry parlance) have frozen their operations because it wasn’t possible to keep workers 6 feet apart along the conveyor belts where recyclables are manually picked through and sorted.

Individuals are often worse than companies when it comes to handling recycling.
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

The problem is, Americans weren’t all that great at recycling to begin with. (And that was before China put the kibosh on most of our recyclables.) Of the 35.4 million tons of plastic the US generated in 2017, only 8.4 percent was recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. As waste generation shifts from businesses to homes, Ray Hatch, CEO of Quest Resource Management Group, a sustainability management company in Texas, expects that number to tumble even further.

“The businesses we serve are quite disciplined, and they have processes to separate materials, whether it’s plastics or cardboard, correctly,” Hatch says. “Households are less dependable, frankly, than businesses. There’s a lot of contamination, there’s misunderstanding about what goes where. We’re going to have a whole lot more going into the landfill, I’m afraid.”

Eric Goldstein, senior attorney and New York City environment director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, for one, says he’s hopeful that these adjustments in behavior, whether on the personal, state, or federal level, are temporary. The environment may be taking a hit now, but what matters more is how we respond in the long run.

“We are in distress conditions now,” Goldstein said. “We’re in the middle of the war, and so sometimes you’ve got to jury-rig temporary solutions to address concerns, even if they later proved unfounded. But when you’re talking about sustainability, it’s long-term trends and the direction of policy that’s important.”

Environmentalists say we need to keep our eye on the bigger picture: Climate change

Before Covid-19 reared its head, consumer opinion about the need to reduce single-use plastic consumption was at an “all-time high” and is unlikely to have changed, says Miriam Gordon, program director at Upstream Solutions, a California environmental nonprofit that helped spearhead Berkeley’s Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance, which does not go into effect until next year.

“People do not have to choose one crisis over another,” Gordon says. “The plastic pollution and climate crises are much more long-term threats to our health, wealth, and environmental sustainability than the Covid-19 crisis.”

Not only does plastic have a cradle-to-grave impact on climate change, as the Guardian reported in 2019, but disposable food-and-beverage packaging is also full of hazardous chemicals that can migrate into the items we consume. More important, we only have a matter of years to pump the brakes on carbon emissions, limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, and avert the worst effects of a climate catastrophe — think oppressive drought, severe storms, calamitous wildfires, and other hallmarks of extreme weather.

There are glimmers of positivity, however.

In 2018, the UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation launched the New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, a worldwide initiative of more than 400 businesses — including Apple, Burberry, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Starbucks, Target, and H&M — that aims to eliminate all “problematic and unnecessary” plastic items by 2025. But despite the fiscal squeeze from roiled supply chains and reduced consumer spending, the foundation hasn’t seen any backtracking from signatories since the pandemic began.

“There might be some delay in progress, but not to the extent that the targets will be changed or targets will be withdrawn,” says Sander Defruyt, lead of the New Plastics Economy initiative. “I think they all realize that if we emerge from this crisis, the plastic pollution and waste issue will still be there.”

Certainly, for all we harp on individual responsibility, corporate action and government policy are necessary to pull us from the brink of environmental disaster. We’re not going to solve climate change by changing light bulbs in our house, Leonard says. Rather, we need a “fundamental rethinking and restructuring of our energy systems.”

That’s not to say that what we do doesn’t matter, though. “Individual choices do send signals; they send signals into the market, and they send signals into the political arena,” he adds. “And obviously, elected officials are responding to the collective will of their constituents.”

Still, Leonard points out that nobody should feel guilty about their personal choices as they adjust to this new abnormal. He isn’t happy about having to use disposable plastic bags at the supermarket either, but he recognizes that they help reassure front-line workers.

“Everybody should kind of do their part to live a sustainable lifestyle, but also recognize that their choices are limited by the larger society and governance structure in which we live,” Leonard says. “So we’re not big fans of civil disobedience in this regard.”

The platitude that we’re all in this together may be trite and maudlin, but never has a sentiment been truer. “We need to think collectively about how we get to the other side,” he says.

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