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Coronavirus pandemic threatens to undo progress on plastic pollution
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the plastic bag was in retreat.
Single-use plastics had become the subject of aggressive — and increasingly successful — restrictions. Consumers were becoming mindful of the need to reduce the amount of plastic they used. Companies were switching to more sustainable materials.
Now, rollbacks of regulations, sanitary concerns and the plummeting prices of new plastics threaten to undo years of progress.
“The sustainability debate has been parked for the year,” said Rob Gilfillan, a packaging expert with the energy research company Wood Mackenzie.
Following lobbying from the plastics industry and requests from grocers, California recently became the latest state to suspend its single-use bag ban, citing sanitary concerns over reusable bags. The legislation also mandated that reusable bags sold by retailers needed to consist of at least 40 percent recycled content. When the ban was lifted, manufacturers went straight back to virgin plastic.
Before the pandemic, public awareness had driven some brands and retailers to use less packaging or materials that are more sustainable. Some items, like fresh produce, were increasingly made available for purchase loose without packaging.
In response, the plastics industry has long argued that its products promote food hygiene and safety. Although the science around plastic and the coronavirus is murky, the pandemic has helped the perceived safety credentials to gain traction and drive consumers back to plastic.
“We’ve seen the whole thing turn on its head,” Gilfillan said. “We think in the U.S. it could be up to 8 percent growth this year in flexible packaging.
“The need for packaging has outweighed the moral dilemma of the sustainability of packaging materials,” he added.
Environmentalists echo the fear. Doug Cress, vice president of conservation at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit in Washington, said legislation rollbacks are “worrisome” and a “carefully calculated lobbying move” on the part of the industry.
Like California, other states have been lifting or delaying plastic bag bans since the coronavirus crisis took hold. The CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, Tony Radoszewski, wrote in March to the Department of Health and Human Services to argue that single-use plastics are the safest option.
Cress said that’s not the case.
“All the science we’ve seen to date indicates COVID-19 sticks longest to plastic,” Cress said, “so, really, it’s a misinformation campaign at a time when fear, uncertainty and confusion is high.”
The Plastics Industry Association didn’t respond to a request for an interview.