There are very few winners in a global pandemic, but it seems that the plastics industry might be one.
Less than six months ago, Massachusetts was on the verge of passing a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags. At least 130 towns and cities across the commonwealth had already limited their use, and in November the bill banning these bags passed the state senate by an overwhelming margin. It seemed like everything was on track for Massachusetts to become the sixth state in the country to ban this major source of plastic pollution ― one that requires millions of barrels of oil to produce and kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year.
All that, however, was before the coronavirus. Instead of signing a plastic bag ban, this week Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, empowered by a state of emergency, signed an order that bars shoppers from bringing reusable bags to the grocery store and overrides all municipal restrictions on single-use plastic bags.
While public health officials believe that the disease is primarily transferred by person-to-person contact, the possibility that the virus that causes COVID-19 can remain on surfaces for long periods of time convinced the governor that the risk was simply not worth it.
As we scramble to understand more about COVID-19 and how it spreads, the plastics industry appears to be taking advantage of this confusion by pushing back against remaining state and municipal bans with a public relations campaign that highlights the supposed dangers of reusable bags. A proliferation of op-eds and news releases suggests that the industry seeks to rescue its reputation after successful environmental campaigns against plastic pollution have led to a swath of bans on single-use plastic.
The pressure is organized and intense. On March 18, the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter to Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, which was later published by Politico. The letter made the case that “single-use plastics are the safest choice” and asked the department to “speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk.”
Meanwhile, the American Legislative Exchange Council, which promotes a conservative agenda in statehouses and is partially funded by plastics manufacturers, is touting model legislation that would let states overrule local bag bans (it had already inspired bills in six states before COVID-19).
And as officials roll back bag bans nationwide, including in Maine and New Hampshire, the rightwing media and conservative think tanks (many with ties to or funding from the plastics industry) are pushing for more single-use plastics and joining the offensive against reusable bags.
Other single-use plastics In addition to plastic bags are also seeing a boost during the pandemic, with companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts banning reusable cups.
The mobilization of the plastics industry to lobby against anti-pollution legislation is unsurprising, said Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist at the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace. “This fits the pattern that we’ve seen for years from industry, but I actually found this one personally offensive,” she told HuffPost. Schlegel is the co-author of a research brief published Thursday, which accuses the plastics industry of “exploit[ing] the COVID-19 emergency to create fear about reusable bags.”
Acknowledging the anxiety both shoppers and grocery workers feel about the virus, Schlegel added that a temporary pause on plastic bag bans and the use of reusables might make sense. Still, she said, “what we’re seeing is an attempt to roll back legislation and sort of go back in time.”
As with much of what the public hears about COVID-19, it’s hard to parse fact from panic; a decision that feels prudent one day can appear reckless just a few days later, as cases mount and scientists report new findings. And the science is far from definitive on how long the virus can survive on surfaces.
“There haven’t been any scientific studies and CDC has definitely not made any blanket recommendations about not using reusable bags,” said Amanda Mae Simanek, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Wisconsin’s Zilber School of Public Health.
There is guidance for safer shopping, she said. “People in the medical community are starting to offer advice about bringing groceries home—take everything out of the bags, get rid of the disposable bags, wipe all your containers down, make sure you thoroughly wash fruit and vegetables. Could we err on the side of caution for the time being? Yeah, that would be reasonable. But it’s something that we’re still figuring out.”
Simanek noted that a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last week found that the virus that causes COVID-19, known to scientists as SARS-CoV-2, could remain viable or potentially infectious on copper for four hours, on cardboard for 24 hours, on stainless steel for two days and on plastic for up to three days. While the researchers did not test the virus’s stability on cloth, in general viruses are less likely to be transmitted by soft surfaces than hard ones.
What does this mean for shoppers and grocers? Simanek said it would be hard to draw conclusions, but “I think people could be wiping their plastic reusable bags down, could be washing their cloth bags with more frequency. That’s probably always recommended, but not necessarily done—we usually take our groceries out and stuff those bags back in our car.”
Researchers have found that reusable bags do carry pathogens, although there is no evidence about whether they might transmit the virus that causes COVID-19. A 2010 study out of the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University School of Public Health that analyzed 84 reusable bags, found that 97% of consumers never washed their bags, even though half of bags, when randomly spot-checked, were contaminated with the bacteria E. coli. This much-cited study was funded by the American Chemical Council, an industry group that counts plastics manufacturers among its members.
A member of ALEC, the council also created Progressive Bag Affiliates, now known as the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, a lobbying organization that has pushed back against bag bans for years—and is stepping up its efforts now.
“Our organization has been educating lawmakers on the sanitary benefits of traditional plastic grocery bags long before COVID-19 became a global health risk,” the group’s executive director, Matt Seaholm, told HuffPost. “State and local government leaders are choosing to suspend these bag bans and taxes because this simple change could save lives or, at the very least, offer a little additional protection for grocery workers and shoppers.”
It’s not an argument Greenpeace’s Schlegel buys. The Arizona study is part of a pattern, she said, noting that other recent studies about the supposed dangers of reusable grocery bags have also been funded by the plastics industry. These studies are among the ones cited recently by rightwing pundits, industry spokespeople and think tanks to argue that plastic bags are safer during the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the irony is that the New England Journal of Medicine study found the virus actually persists longer on plastic than on any other material, suggesting reusable bags are far from the most dangerous surface at the grocery store.
“We now know that plastic presents health risks at every stage along its life cycle, from its beginning in oil and gas, all the way to disposal,” Schlegel said. “This virus is a very convenient excuse to go back in time to when plastic was believed to be the most sanitary thing. That’s a myth the plastics industry has been pushing for years. But it’s not actually true.”
HuffPost’s “Work In Progress” series focuses on the impact of business on society and the environment and is funded by Porticus. It is part of the “This New World” series. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from Porticus. If you have an idea or tip for the editorial series, send an email to email@example.com.
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