Public fear around the COVID-19 pandemic is helping the the plastics industry mount an attack against the zero-waste movement, US campaigners and commentators are warning. 

Concern about safety and cross-contamination has led to many states, cities and corporates to lift single-use plastic bans, which has translated into surging demand for bottled water, PPE, plastic bags and packaging.

At the same time grocery stores have banned shoppers from bringing their own reusable bags and have been handing out single-use plastic bags instead. It’s a pattern that’s being repeated in Europe. In the UK, supermarkets have switched to packing home deliveries in multiple plastic bags, instead of customers taking their goods from reusable tote boxes. 

Plastic bags and shrink-wrapped fresh produce have begun appearing in farmers’ markets and wholefood stores, the very places that normally would be a heartland for campaigning against against single-use plastics. US natural food chain Trader Joe’s, which has championed reusable bags since the 1970s, has suspended their use during the crisis. 

Facts versus feelings
All of this is happening for one entirely understandable reason – preventing transmission of the virus is everyone’s top priority. And as Lisa Held writes at Civil Eats, despite “a lack of evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted on food or that wrapping food in plastic is safer…throwing something away that came from outside the home and was touched by unknown hands simply feels safer.”

In fact, says Held, the limited science on this subject raises serious questions about whether plastic is, in reality, the best material in the circumstances. A study by US researchers (published in the New England Journal of Medicine) suggests coronavirus may be persist for significantly longer on plastic than other materials. The researchers write: “SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces.” As Laura Tenebaum wrote recently in Forbes, “this suggests that paper bags might be less risky than plastic ones”.

“relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour”

Forbes cites environmental campaigners who fear that temporary rollbacks to plastic bans could become permanent, undermining efforts to reduce single-use plastics, which continue to devastate marine ecosystems. 

Spreading misinformation
“In the midst of this,” writes Held, “the plastics industry has stepped in to spread misinformation about the dangers of reusable bags and has successfully reversed plastic bag bans in some states and cities.”

A report by the investigative news magazine Mother Jones (MoJo), suggests that a coalition of interests – including the plastics industry, libertarian think tanks and climate change sceptics – has seized on public fears around the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to mount an attack on the zero-waste movement. By mid-March, writes Rebecca Leber, “the campaign against reusable bags had kicked into high gear”. As well as one leading trade group’s request to the US Department of Health to endorse the idea that “single-use plastic products are the sanitary choice when it comes to many applications”, Leber, points to a string of organisations pressuring state and municipal authorities to reverse single-use plastic bans and other measures. The timing of these, she says, “suggests a concerted public relations campaign by the plastics industry. 

Long-term impact
Writing in The Conversation, Will de Freitas,  warns that a “relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behaviour”. Previous studies show, he says, that “one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviours is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalised again.” 

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash