Several states and cities have banned the use of single-use plastic bags in favor of reusable shopping bags. Studies have shown, however, that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store or pharmacy, and live on surfaces for up to three days. Tony Radoszewski, President and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association wrote a letter to Alex Azar, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, requesting the Department “to speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk…” The letter noted:
In recent years, there has been a push to eliminate single-use products at the local, state, and now even at the federal level. During that time, the plastics industry has been working to educate the general public and elected officials that single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications, especially the consumption and transport of food, whether purchased at a restaurant or at a grocery store.
The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice.
Some States Reverse Their Bans on Plastic Bags
Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags and hundreds of municipalities are also doing so. But, some of those states and localities have realized that reusable bags can spread the coronavirus. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu prohibited shoppers from bringing reusable bags to stores and ordered stores to make new paper or plastic bags available. Maine delayed a bag ban that was scheduled for April 22. Boston Mayor Martin Walsh issued an executive order allowing plastic bag use in the city for retailers that qualify as essential businesses under a state executive order. That executive order was followed by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announcing a ban on reusable shopping bags and allowing grocery stores, pharmacies, food banks, and emergency food programs to use single-use plastic bags without charging customers for them.
A statewide ban went into effect in New York on March 1, but enforcement was delayed and then further delayed to May 15 as courts effectively closed down earlier this month. According to a New York government official, NY’s ban on plastic bags will help the state reduce plastic pollution, including keeping plastic bags out of tree branches and waterways. The department estimates that 23 billion plastic bags are used annually statewide. New York’s state law makers were told of the health risks before they passed the law. One activist even warned that New York could be particularly vulnerable because New Yorkers often rest their bags on the floors of subway cars containing potentially deadly bacteria from rats—and then set the bags on supermarket checkout counters.
Instead, the New York Department of Health issued a webpage entitled “Reusable Grocery Bags: A Smart Choice But Play It Safe”, added the following cautions: Grocery shoppers should segregate different foods in different bags; package meat and fish and poultry in small disposable plastic bags inside their tote bags; wash and dry their tote bags carefully; store the tote bags in a cool, dry place; and never to reuse the grocery tote bags for anything but food. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect people to follow all those rules. Food manufacturers and grocers know that disposable plastic is the cheapest, simplest, and safest way to prevent foodborne illnesses.
The ban on plastic bags will also mean more trash in landfills because paper bags and reusable totes take up more space than thin disposable plastic bags and emit more greenhouse emissions because of their larger carbon footprints since reusable totes and paper bags require more water to manufacture and more energy to produce and transport. It would be more beneficial to establish programs to discourage littering and to pick up everything that’s discarded—a direct approach that has proved effective in the past.
Another Reason for the Ban
During the 1970s, environmentalists wanted the government to restrict the use of plastics because they were made from oil, which many thought would soon be depleted. Both the oil-depletion and the plastics-made-from-oil beliefs, however, are myths since the United States is now the number one producer of oil in the world and plastics are not made directly from crude oil, but from a feedstock that is derived from oil. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), plastics are produced from natural gas, feedstocks derived from natural gas processing, and feedstocks derived from crude oil refining.
Data from 2010, when the EIA last collected this information, shows that about 191 million barrels of liquid petroleum gases and natural gas liquids were used for the production of plastics along with 412 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The liquids amount constituted about 2.7 percent of the country’s total petroleum consumption. Most of the natural gas used in plastics production was used as a fuel rather than feedstock. In addition to petroleum products and natural gas, about 65 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity were used to manufacture plastics in 2010, equal to about 1.7 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption.
Like other products that the nation uses and needs, plastics are manufactured using energy.
Other Uses for Single-Use Plastic Bags
One New Yorker started a nonprofit group, called Mats for a Mission that uses donated, clean plastic bags to crochet sleeping mats for homeless people. The mats keep people off the cold or wet ground, and are washable. Consumers are the main source of the donated bags. It takes 850 bags and 50 hours to crochet one 3-foot-by-6-foot-long mat, after chopping the ends off the bags, cutting them into strips and tying them together to make plastic yarn, which takes another 20 hours. The group has kept about half a million bags out of the waste stream.
The Cheektowaga, NY resident started making the mats three-and-a-half years ago at the local library, storing bags and mats in her van. The group now uses 4,000 square feet in a former store at a mall in Buffalo to make the mats. About 470 of the colorful, quarter-inch thick pads were available in February for distribution to the homeless and another 110 were available in March.
Plastic bags also have other advantages. For example, pet owners use them for cleaning up after their dogs and in major urban areas of the United States where human excrement in public places is a growing problem, plastic bags that can be easily disposed of offer a quick solution.
Eight states have banned single-use plastic bags, having grocery store patrons use reusable totes or paper bags instead, meaning and businesses are not allowed to determine what product is best for them and their customers. The 2019 novel coronavirus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash their reusable bags regularly, which few people will bother to do. Viruses and bacteria can survive in the tote bags up to nine days, according to one study of coronaviruses. Rather than banning plastic bags, it would be more beneficial for states to re-examine their policies and figure out a better way to dispose of them or recycle them. Furthermore, the ban on single-use plastic bags will mean more trash in landfills and more greenhouse emissions.