Contrary to What the Plastics Industry Says, Single-Use Isn’t Safer

by Caroline Griffith

As the COVID 19 pandemic drags on, many environmentally conscious people have become frustrated by the amount of plastic and single-use packaging they are being compelled to consume in the name of public health. At the outset of the outbreak, the plastics industry claimed that reusable bags and mugs could transmit the virus, therefore constituting a public health risk. Many states and municipalities followed suit by banning reusable bags and containers. But as more research has been done on how the virus spreads, public health experts from around the world are now saying that no known cases of COVID 19 have been linked to surfaces, including reusable bags. This research comes just in time for the expiration of California’s 60 day ban on reusable bags.

According to Dr. Ben Locwin, a healthcare executive and consultant with the FDA and CDC, who is working on the front lines of the national coronavirus pandemic, “As far as reusable bags are concerned, the likelihood that bacteria or viral particles on your bag – if they exist – are going to transfer from your bag to your hand, to an object that you touch in the store, and infect someone else who touches that same object, is extraordinarily low.” Moving from reusables to a disposable culture is, as Dr. Locwin notes, “pure scientific nonsense.”

In fact, the risk associated with the production of plastic seems to be more of a danger than the risk of the virus being transmitted via reusables. At a July 7 hearing of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on the Environment, titled, “Plastic Production, Pollution, and Waste in the Time of COVID-19”, experts put a spotlight on expanding plastic use and the pollution that comes with it, highlighting the fact that many plastic manufacturing plants are located in and near communities of color and low-income communities. One example is Cancer Alley, an 85-mile stretch along the Mississippi River that is home to over one hundred oil refineries and petrochemical plants. People living in Cancer Alley are more than 50 times as likely to be diagnosed with cancer as the average American, and they have been hit hard by the coronavirus. One speaker at the hearing, Dr. Kimberly Terrell of Tulane University, cited research she has participated in which found that, in Louisiana, the parishes with the highest per capita COVID-19 death rates are found in this industrial area between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where long-term particulate pollution is well above the national average. “While many factors contribute to COVID-19 risk, the study from Harvard and more recent research from University of Cambridge provide clear evidence of a link between air pollution and death from COVID-19,” Terrell said. “ The relationship is pretty intuitive – air pollution damages our lungs, and people with lung damage face greater risk of death from COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.”

According to the American Chemistry Council, as of February of 2020 there were 343 new plastics production plants or expansions planned for the near future. Much of this boom in plastics manufacturing is because of fracked natural gas and shale oil, the feedstocks of the plastics industry. After the twin blows of a global price war and the coronavirus pandemic, which slashed demand, the U.S. fracking industry found itself in dire straits and multiple large producers have filed for bankruptcy protection in the last couple of months. Whether this will have any effect on the rates of plastic production in the U.S. remains to be seen. The U.S. produces more than 300 million tons of plastic per year, the vast majority of which is not recycled and ends up in our oceans.