In a setback, albeit temporary, for efforts to combat plastic waste, many state and local governments have suspended plastic bag bans and are prohibiting the use of reusable bags to stem the spread of COVID-19. The plastics industry is pushing for such measures, causing environmentalists to cry foul.
San Francisco, which has been at the forefront of single-use plastics restrictions, issued an order “not permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home” as a measure “to prevent unnecessary contact.” Maine is delaying enforcement of its plastic bag ban to Jan. 15, 2021, after originally planning to roll it out on April 22—Earth Day.
New Hampshire governor Christopher T. Sununu ordered stores to transition to “the use of store-provided, single-use plastics or paper bags,” to “prevent the spread of COVID-19.” Massachusetts is permitting stores subject to local bag bans to use single-use bags and has prohibited reusable bags.
New York’s Supreme Court delayed enforcement of the state’s bag ban from March 1 to May 15. That order is the result of a lawsuit brought by bodegas, not COVID-19.
The plastics industry has been advocating for such measures. In recent weeks, Bag The Ban, an initiative sponsored by the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, has endorsed editorials in newspapers such as the Boston Herald and the New Hampshire Union Leader advocating use of plastic bags to protect grocery workers from COVID-19.
“It is imperative that employers and regulators do everything possible to protect these individuals while they are providing the crucial service of keeping the public fed,” read one such editorial. “That includes banning reusable bags, which have been demonstrated to harbor bacteria, contagions, and viruses.”
Writing to the US Department of Health and Human Services, the Plastics Industry Association made a similar point. “Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications.”
The association cited research on reusable bags, including a 2011 study from Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona that tested bags from shoppers selected randomly at the grocery store and found bacteria such as E. coli on 8% of them. It also pointed to a 2012 outbreak of norovirus in Oregon linked to use of a reusable food bag and cited a 2019 study from Portugal that found bacteria in bags.
To Judith Enck, founder of the environmental group Beyond Plastics, the industry is using scare tactics. “Plastic bag lobbyists are attempting to exploit a public health crisis,” she says. “There is no evidence that reusable bags contribute to the serious problem of COVID-19.”
Enck does say consumers should pack their own groceries if they are using reusable bags and should wash their bags regularly.
This story was updated on April 8, 2020, to correct a statement about Bag the Ban. The plastics industry initiative endorsed several newspaper editorials, but it did not place them.