‘It’s all on hold’: how Covid-19 derailed the fight against plastic waste
Pandemic prompted states to temporarily ban reusable grocery bags and stalled legislation aimed at reducing plastic packaging
2020 was supposed to be the year America revolted against plastic.
Consumers were refusing straws and toting their own coffee mugs. Legislators had proposed an unprecedented wave of laws to ban single-use plastics. Even companies like Coke and Pepsi were opening up to the idea plastic might not be the future.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic. Now activists worry the anti-plastic movement is once again back in the trenches.
The fight has stalled on a number of fronts across the US. Fears about the virus spreading on surfaces prompted several states to temporarily ban reusable grocery bags, sending single-use bags flooding back into the marketplace. Major legislation aimed at reducing plastics packaging has stalled as lawmakers’ priorities shifted elsewhere. Disposable masks and gloves have become the harbingers of pandemic life, along with plastic take-out food containers and the debris of Amazon packages.
Meanwhile the plastics industry ramped up its lobbying, urging federal agencies to declare the sanitary benefits of disposable plastics, and arguing that plastic bag bans went against public health.
“The plastic reduction movement was in full swing and moving faster than any environmental issue I’ve ever worked on,” said Martin Bourque, who runs the Ecology Center, the recycling program in Berkeley, California, that has spearheaded waste reduction since the 1970s. “Since March, it’s all been on hold.”
California has long led the way in anti-plastic efforts, banning single-use bags in 2014. But when the pandemic hit the state suddenly reversed course, suspending the law. Numerous California county health departments took it a step further and banned customers from bringing their own reusable bags into stores.
“When Covid-19 came out, we were worried about everything,” said Jan Dell, the founder of the environmental group the Last Beach Cleanup, and a member of California’s newly-created recycling commission.“There was all this conflicting information. The health crisis brought everything to a halt.”
The result has been 500m additional plastic bags handed out per month in California alone, estimates Mark Murray, the executive director of Californians against Waste.
At least five states – including California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York and Maine – suspended or delayed bag bans and other laws designed to reduce disposable plastics because of the pandemic, according to a count compiled by the Product Stewardship Institute, a national non-profit committed to reducing the environmental impacts of packaging. New Hampshire and Illinois, which do not have statewide plastic bag bans, nevertheless banned customers from bringing their own reusables into stores.
The group’s tracker also found more than two dozen local jurisdictions – from Hawaii county, Hawaii, to North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina – have suspended their bag laws.
While some of the states, including California, are starting to reinstate their old bag laws, some environmentalists fear it could be tough to get consumers back on track.
“It’s taken us five years to really cement the behavior of bringing your own bags,” said Borque, whose center handles the recycling for the City of Berkeley. “From a recycler’s perspective, the change has been huge. To go back and think we might have all those plastic bags clogging our storm drains, littering our pasture land and cluttering our streets is really chilling.”
The plastic industry swoops in
The fear of reusable bags seemed logical at first. Little was known about how the virus spread, and plastic lobbyists quickly capitalized on this knowledge gap.