Will COVID-19 Undo Environmental Gains to Reduce Plastics?

By Gifford Hall and Maggie Gainer

Zero Waste Humboldt urges Redwood Coast residents to join us in learning to adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 public health crisis while we continue to reduce the horrific impacts of single-use plastics on the environment.

First, we always recommend that businesses and residents follow Public Health instructions. ZWH has regularly consulted with Humboldt County Environmental Health Services to make sure our public education is consistent with Public Health standards.
Second, during the coronavirus, we have been pleased to observe that many Humboldt grocery stores, restaurants, and food delivery services continue to use brown paper bags and paper cartons for meals. We have not seen many regress to plastic bags and styrofoam. When you place a food order, tell them you prefer paper and compostable fiber, not plastic.

Single-use plastics were designed for extreme emergencies – not daily life habits. Our short-term adaptation to the requirements of COVID-19 will not need to continue as long-term dependence on single-use plastics. Zero Waste leaders are seeing many food producers gradually switch to less wasteful packaging, molded fiber containers, and more easily recyclable options. Their motivation is compliance with upcoming legislation and to satisfy the increasing demands of consumers.

Since March, the petrochemical industry seized the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to exploit the public’s fears and step up lobbying efforts to rescind recently passed laws to restrict single-use plastics. Within days of President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency, plastic industry lobbyists, their legislative allies, and marketing firms launched national campaigns advocating for the rollback of laws banning plastic bags.

The Plastics Industry Association urged the federal government to issue a statement promoting the “health and safety benefits of plastic bags.” One of the managers of the Association, Tony Radoszewesk, stated that “The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Americans, businesses, and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice.”

Single-use plastic is not inherently “cleaner” than the reusable bag, mug, etc. Coronavirus lives on several surfaces, and research shows that the virus remains viable three times longer on plastic than on other surface types. Although the CDC has not issued any comments condoning or recommending plastic bags versus reusable bags, a study published in the Lancet Microbe Journal on April 2 examined the length at which the coronavirus can last on certain materials. The findings indicate that the virus can remain on paper for up to three hours, cloth for up to two days, and plastic for up to three days. Environmental experts stress that plastic bags can still harbor viruses and bacteria during their manufacturing, transport, stocking or use.

Despite this, several U.S. states and cities have repealed regulations or delayed passing laws that restrict single-use plastic bags, and some state and city governments have prohibited customers from bringing their reusable bags into stores due to the fear of spreading the virus.

While we are still coping with the COVID-19 crisis, our environment’s plastics crisis is on the back burner. But now is not the time to halt the progress made to address the proliferation of single-use plastics in our environment. We urge you to continue your waste reduction and reuse habits at home, and to integrate Zero Waste principles into your business decisions at the workplace. Humboldt County residents have strong core values in sustainability, and cannot allow the plastic industry to mislead us.  Many Humboldt residents are using this time of sheltering in place to reflect on alternatives to the waste they generate and setting Zero Waste goals. To share your waste reduction ideas, contact zerowastehumboldt@gmail.com .