CORONAVIRUS

Pandemic deals blow to plastic reduction

Cities, states had been banning straws

Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner and Bar in Seattle, places a takeout food order, packaged in compostable
Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner and Bar in Seattle, places a takeout food order, packaged in compostable containers, into a plastic bag in Seattle. (Associated Press)

Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the United States were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America.

In a matter of days, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the United States have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.

Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Wash., to Albuquerque, N.M., have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages.

Add to that a rise in takeout and a ban on reusable cups and straws at the few coffee stores that remain open, and environmentalists worry COVID-19 could set back their efforts to tackle plastic pollution for years.

Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner and Bar in Seattle, has been using biodegradable containers for takeout and delivery at his restaurant, but those products cost up to three times more than plastic — and they’re getting hard to find because of the surge in takeout, he said.

“The problem is, we don’t know what’s in store,” Quadros said. “Everyone is in the same situation.”

The plastics industry has seized the moment and is lobbying to overturn bans on single-use plastics by arguing disposable plastics are the safest option amid the crisis.

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California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have statewide bans on plastic bags, and Oregon and California have laws limiting the use of plastic straws. New York’s statewide plastic bag ban is on hold because of a lawsuit.

The Plastics Industry Association recently sent a letter to Alex Azar, head of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and asked him to speak out against plastic bag bans because they put consumers and workers at risk.

And the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance is doubling down on its opposition to plastic bag bans under a preexisting campaign titled Bag the Ban.

Grocery worker unions, too, have joined the chorus. The union that represents Oregon supermarket workers is lobbying for a ban on reusable bags, and a Chicago union called for an “end to the disease-transmitting bag tax.”

Critics argue people with reusable bags don’t regularly wash them.

“If those bags coming into the store are contaminated with anything, they get put on the conveyor belt, the counter, and you’re putting yourself in a bad spot,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance. “It’s an unnecessary risk.”

A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found the novel coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless steel for up to three days, and on cardboard for up to one day.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it appears possible for a person to get COVID-19 by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching their mouth, nose or eyes — but it’s not thought that’s the main way the virus spreads.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.