Decades of work to ban single-use plastic bags at checkout counters are being upended almost overnight because of potential coronavirus contagion risks. It seems necessary in the short-term, but we hope the movement to prevent plastic pollution is not eclipsed longer-term.
A column in Forbes Magazine surveys the landscape that changed overnight as we realized a pandemic was upon us and contagion had to be stopped. Until the COVID-19 threat, stores from Safeway to Trader Joe’s charged for new paper bags as a way to encourage shoppers to bring our own reusable bags. Cities and states in the US had begun banning plastic straws and requiring restaurants to use more environmentally friendly takeout containers. Some restaurants even began allowing customers to bring their own containers from home.
Much of that stopped overnight.
In a complete reversal, eight California counties have already banned shoppers from bringing their own bags to stores and Trader Joe’s instituted a ban nationwide.
In just a few days, the many hard-won bans and general public willingness to forego single-use plastic bags, straws and take-out containers are taking a necessary backseat to public health considerations. “Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags,” for example, the Forbes article reports. “Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages.”
While restaurants are closed during the almost nationwide public health stay-at-home orders, many are trying to keep income coming in by offering takeout and delivery meals. Many are still using environmentally safe takeout containers, but worry about the effect the more-expensive materials will have on their dwindling bottom lines.
The plastics industry is taking advantage of this moment to try to make rollbacks on environmentally friendly policies permanent. The Plastics Industry Association and others have already begun intensive lobbying to overturn cities’ and states’ bans. Let’s hope we don’t let one crisis eclipse another. While an eventual vaccine most likely will stop COVID-19, we don’t have a vaccine for plastic pollution. We must rely on prevention, finding ways to stop the ever-growing levels of dangerous plastic pollution that is also a plague – in our oceans, rivers, wildlife, drinking water and food on our own dinner plates.