Single-Use Plastics Are Not Safer

The plastics industry is exploiting people’s fears of contracting Covid-19 to push its agenda.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

As the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, the plastic industry has seized the opportunity to exploit the crisis and discredit reusables, pushing governments to roll back legislation that limit single-use plastic such as plastic bag bans, and promote even more polluting plastic.

plastic bags
Coronavirus can live on a variety of surface types, and research shows that the virus remains viable 3x longer on plastic than on other tested surfaces. Photo by Jonelle Kimbrough/US Army Reserve

Is single-use plastic safer than reusables? The answer is a resounding “NO.”

Single-use plastic is not inherently “cleaner” than the reusable items you have at home. Coronavirus can live on a variety of surface types, and research shows that the virus remains viable 3x longer on plastic than on other tested surfaces.

A 2005 study of the virus that causes SARS, another form of coronavirus, provides further reassurance about paper and reusable cloth bags. In that study, researchers tested increasingly large amounts of viral samples on paper and on a cotton gown. Depending on the concentration of the virus, it took five minutes, three hours or 24 hours for it to become inactive. “Even with a relatively high virus load in the droplet, rapid loss of infectivity was observed for paper and cotton material,” the researchers concluded.

It’s clear the plastics industry is exploiting people’s fears around Covid-19 to push its agenda and continue producing even more plastic pollution — halting the incredible momentum towards reusable systems we have seen come to life recently.

Last year, the City of Berkeley, California passed a groundbreaking legislation — the Single-Use Foodware and Litter Reduction Ordinance — the first of its kind in a major city in the United States. The ordinance was designed to reduce the use and disposal of single-use foodware (predominantly plastic), including cups, lids, utensils, straws, clamshells, and other disposable items that harm wildlife and contribute to street litter, marine pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and waste sent to landfills. This forward-thinking legislation helped businesses move away from throwaway items to reusables, which is a component of the city’s zero waste goals.

A combination of citizen action, community leadership, student involvement, an inclusive strategic focus, and global environmental organizations with staff living in Berkeley, paved the way for the ordinance to pass unanimously. According to Plastic Pollution Coalition member UPSTREAM, versions of the ordinance have now been passed in seven cities on the West Coast with a combined population of more than 1.2 million people, and Los Angeles and New York City are lining up to follow suit.

In Berkeley, the ordinance allowed new, innovative businesses to take root, such as Vessel, whose reusable steel coffee cups launched a pilot project in September 2019, with full implementation of the ordinance beginning in January 2020.

While the city reacted swiftly and with compassion for the hardships placed on businesses, school children, parents, and residents during this global pandemic, it is also putting in place measures rolling back those hard-fought victories for reducing the environmental impact of plastic pollution. In fact, cities and towns across the US have been issuing emergency orders temporarily forbidding the use of reusable bags at retail stores.

The Governor of New Hampshire prohibited shoppers from bringing reusable bags to stores and ordered stores to make new paper or plastic bags available, Massachusetts may temporarily suspend plastic bag bans, and Maine delayed a bag ban that was scheduled for April 22.

Much is still not known about how this devastating virus spreads and infects people, but there is research that provides solid justification for sticking to the reusable healthier course, not rolling back standards.

It’s important to remember that using more single-use plastic disposables during this time increases your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals that are toxic to our own health and that of younger generations. Over in the European Union, the European Commission is standing vigorously against industry lobbying pressure and fear-mongering. It is not caving into calls by industry to lift an EU-wide ban on some single-use plastic items because of health and hygiene concerns raised during the Covid-19 outbreak. It has declared that deadlines must be respected.

At the same time, it is also interesting to note that on the other end, the plastics industry is seeking a $1 billion government bailout for the reduction in plastics recycling during the pandemic as “many localities have reduced/eliminated recycling collection or suspended enforcement of bottle deposit laws, greatly reducing a much-needed manufacturing feedstock.”

Now is the time for the forward-thinking leaders in Berkeley and other cities across the US and world to stand firm using science to continue to protect public safety by NOT rolling back or pausing ordinance standards or legislation to reduce plastic pollution.

What may appear as short term health benefits of encouraging use of single-use plastic bags, and other single-use plastic items, will not alleviate the long term global catastrophe created by the increased use of plastic.

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