COVID-19 Reframes Debate on Single-Use Plastic Bags

As cities and states grapple over whether or not plastic retail bags are safer than reusable totes during the coronavirus crisis — and try to decide to ban or not to ban single-use plastic bags — the plastics industry continues to promote the benefits of plastic across a wide range of applications. These benefits are, after all, why plastic became so ubiquitous in the first place: Consumer safety, improved shelf life (less food waste), and hygiene, to name just a few.

food in single-use plastic bag vs reusable bag

Several environmental groups in New Jersey sent letters of support to 54 towns in the state in response to “the bullying and misinformation campaign by the Plastics Industry Association and the New Jersey Food Council (NJFC),” urging these towns to keep their plastic bag bans in place. Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, claimed in an article in Insider NJ, that the Plastics Industry Association and some of its allies like the NJFC “have fought these plastic bag bans from the outset and opposed real reusable bags all along. Now, they are deliberately using our health emergency as a cover to try to block these bans.”

In a commentary, Mara Hancker, Managing Director of the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films, noted that “virtually no one wanted to hear about the ecological benefits” of plastics, and the “populist ‘plastic-free’ demand drowned out many factual arguments” until the coronavirus came along, triggering “world changes in almost all areas of life.” Suddenly people became concerned about the health and safety of the supply chain, and consumers’ “view of packaging is opening up from the blind spot of an often ideological discussion” about plastic.

“Critics may now say that the industry is just exploiting a good opportunity,” Hancker continued in her commentary. “The industry’s answer to this is very clear: ‘Yes, we are.’ This is because we see a huge opportunity for a discussion about our products that is finally differentiated — away from populist demands for bans and toward sustainable decisions for more climate protection with plastics.” 

Another letter from Upstream Solutions, the group that I blogged about a couple of weeks ago, noted, much to its dismay, that on April 2 the Bay Area health department decided to ban reusable shopping bags to address concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in its communities. “While it’s great they’re taking a proactive approach to protecting their residents, yesterday’s decision to ban reusable bags is not based on sound science,” said Upstream Solutions in its letter. “It plays right into the plastic industry’s agenda of profiting off of America’s fears about the coronavirus in order to produce more single-use plastic.”

Upstream Solutions reiterated that reusables are still safe to use during this pandemic. “We can’t trade a public health crisis for an environmental crisis (which will still be here long after COVID-19).”

It seems that many companies are actively searching for vendors that provide alternative materials for shopping bags. A "Thomas Index Report" on April 6 checked out industrial sourcing activity for reusable shopping bags found in grocery stores. “While only eight states — including California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont — have banned plastic bags so far, additional legislation is currently in play to expand limitations further across the country,” said Tony Uphoff for Thomasnet.

In response to this “accelerating sustainability trend” for reusable bags, Thomasnet noted that sourcing activity “is shifting toward categories related to reusable bag materials.”

Overall, bag sourcing has grown 125% year-over-year and 87% over the last quarter averages, said Thomasnet. Biodegradable bag sourcing increased 52% over last year and 44% over Q4 2019. Cotton bag sourcing was up 70% over 2019 and 25% over the last quarter’s averages. Nylon bag sourcing rose 62% year-over-year and 155% over Q4 2019 numbers.

“Both cotton and nylon are emerging as popular alternatives to standard plastic shopping bags,” noted Uphoff in his report. However, he added that Thomasnet does not expect this to lead to a drop in sourcing for plastic bags, which is still up 90%. Thomasnet expects the numbers to stay consistent for plastic bags, even as searches for bags made of alternative materials “gain substantial momentum.”

Image: Agenturfotografin/Adobe Stock

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