The pandemic has triggered a rise in pollution from single-use plastics, and undermined the movement to ban their usage.
Opponents of plastic bags, cutlery and personal protective equipment say the material is endangering the environment by threatening wildlife and drinking water.
Supporters – namely, the plastics industry and major retailers – say plastics remain cheaper and safer for consumers and should not be banished at a time when Americans are facing a major health risk and financial troubles.
The clash over plastics reached a tipping point in the early days of the pandemic, when environmental activists decried a major plastic trade group’s call for the federal government to publicly back plastics and oppose bans.
While that never happened, watchdogs say the plastics industry has nonetheless capitalized on the pandemic by misleadingly portraying its products as necessary for public health.
Plastic bags reemerge
Because of the pandemic, non-recycled, single-use plastic waste, primarily from medical equipment, food delivery and takeout, “has gone up materially,” according to a report by plastics industry analyst Simon Powell of investment bank Jefferies.
At the same time, plastic bags have reemerged after some retailers temporarily banned reusable bags. Several states, including California, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York, took steps to delay, weaken or reverse laws banning plastic bags.
“The pandemic is eroding hard-fought efforts to reduce the proliferation of single-use plastics,” Powell wrote in a recent research note. “Governments are rolling back or delaying bans, and virus-driven behavioral changes have fueled increased plastic consumption by consumers.”
He also noted that the single-use plastic demand from medical, food delivery and grocery is up, offsetting declines from restaurants, industrial packaging and beverages.
10 million bags per minute
Plastics, when not recycled or reused, are harmful to the environment because they don’t biodegrade and are made using fossil fuels that cause climate change. Worldwide, people use up to 10 million plastic bags per minute, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.
Up to 13 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in oceans every year, reflecting the equivalent of one garbage truck every minute, according to a recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Environmentalists accuse the plastics industry of lying about the dangers of reusable containers and bags, which experts say are safe to use but should be periodically washed.
“Right out of the gate, the plastic industry exploited fears around the pandemic to try to convince people that single-use plastics were necessary to keep us safe and that reusables were dirty and dangerous,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.
A letter sent by the major plastics trade group, the Plastics Industry Association, to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on March 18 exhorted the department to “investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.”
It further called on the department to oppose plastic bag bans “as a public safety risk.”