Coronavirus Panic Is Undoing the Anti-Plastic Bag Movement

Big Plastic has jumped right in to tell people that single-use plastics are the safer alternative during this pandemic.
April 1, 2020, 8:52pm
plastic bags
Photo: Getty Images

The city of Boston's ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect on December 14, and the main ideas of the ordinance are that stores can only give reusable, recyclable, or compostable bags to their customers, that retailers are no longer allowed to hand out single-use plastic bags with handles, and that even restaurant to-go orders have to be packaged in recycled paper or reusable bags.

Another section of the ordinance requires all retailers to have a sign posted within five feet of the cash register to inform customers that they have to bring their own reusable bags or they'll be charged at least a nickel for one of the store's newly compliant versions. Although those signs are still taped up everywhere, city officials have given everyone permission to temporarily ignore them and yes, it's because of coronavirus.

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Last Wednesday, Boston mayor Martin J. Walsh granted a temporary exemption to the plastic bag ordinance, and is again allowing "essential businesses" (read: the ones that have been allowed to remain open) to use single-use bags, and to stop charging customers for them.

"During this challenging time, we understand the retail establishments our residents rely on—like grocery stores, pharmacies, and restaurants—need added flexibility to best serve their customers," Walsh said in a statement. "We are adjusting Boston's plastic bag ordinance to give establishments and residents the help they need during this time."

The entire state of Massachusetts followed suit, as did Maine. New Hampshire and New York have both decided to delay their own statewide plastic bag bans, and the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association is urging that state's governor to delay its soon-to-be implemented law too.

A study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine determined that this strain of coronavirus could live "up to two to three days" on plastic and on stainless steel surfaces, and "suggests that people may acquire the virus through the air and after touching contaminated objects." It does not specifically mention reusable bags as a concern, but it does advise that any frequently touched objects should be disinfected regularly—and how often do people really wash their shopping bags?

In a move that is zero percent surprising, Big Plastic has jumped right in to tell people that single-use plastics are the safer alternative during this pandemic, and the Plastics Industry Association has written to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking the agency to have its back on this one.

"We ask that the department 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," the association wrote, according to a copy of the letter obtained by Politico.

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The American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance has also spoken up, saying that forcing supermarket and retail workers to handle customers' reusable bags could jeopardize their health right now. "Grocery stores are one of the few places that are going to remain open, and there’s no need to force some sort of a policy of a bag ban when there are much more important things to deal with," the organization said.

And it's not just plastic bags: The Wall Street Journal reports that coffee chains, including Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and Tim Hortons have temporarily stopped refilling customers' reusable cups over coronavirus-related health concerns.

The sponsor of Denver's plastic bag ordinance announced that she would be rewriting it so that it would go into effect next January 1 instead of July 1 as originally planned. "City staff and consumers have other priorities right now," Kendra Black said.

And that's the thing: Will customers who had been happily carrying their own mug into Starbucks, or taking a cotton PBS-logo tote into the supermarket resume those behaviors when this global health threat is safely behind us, or will they have "other priorities" in a month (or two or six)? And once shoppers have been told that single-use bags are more sanitary or less likely to transmit viruses than reusable versions, will they be as accepting of statewide or citywide bans?

The Break Free From Plastic organization seems to think so. "The zero-waste lifestyle is here to stay and is gaining more traction every day," it wrote on its website. "While the coronavirus will change many things in our lives for a time, it won’t change our core values like working for healthy people, a healthy planet, and a sustainable economy. But just like take-out and food delivery, this crisis is also showing us that we need better systems for [Bring Your Own] and bulk shopping."

And all isn't completely lost for anti-plastic advocates. Despite the ongoing pandemic, Washington governor Jay Inslee signed the state's plastic bag ban into law last week anyway. It goes into effect on January 1.