Listen to scientists, not industry lobbyists, and just keep cleaning.
The coronavirus has triggered some unexpected environmental benefits in recent days. Skies are clearing over China, Italy, and the US, greenhouse gas emissions are down, and cars are parked in driveways with nowhere to go. But there's one area in which the coronavirus has potential to cause more environmental damage than before, and that is single-use disposable plastics.
The plastics industry is taking advantage of the current crisis to warn people against reusable bags and containers, saying they're potential vectors for contamination and that disposables are a safer option. The Plastics Industry Association has written a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking for them to "make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics [and to] speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk."As Miriam Gordon writes for Upstream Solutions, this letter contains a great deal of misinformation. It cites a study funded by the American Chemistry Council that found reusable bags contain high levels of bacteria because users don't wash them frequently enough. Gordon points out that the study authors "didn’t state that there were any health-related threats posed by the types and levels of bacteria in the reusable bags. They suggested that people wash their reusable bags, not replace them with single-use plastic ones."
The letter also twists a news story to suit its purposes. Gordon says it cites "a 2012 NBC News article about a girls soccer team sickened by transmission of norovirus when one sick girl 'spread an aerosol of the virus in a hotel room which landed on everything in the room' – including the surface of a reusable grocery bag that tested positive for the virus. It’s not clear that this is how the team got sick. If that bag had been a disposable plastic bag, it too could have had norovirus on it."
The material does not matter.
There is no doubt that people fail to wash their reusable bags often enough and should start doing that more diligently. But when it comes to food containers, disposable or reusable, contamination can occur on any surface, regardless of its material. That is the current stance of scientists, medical professionals, and the FDA, which has said, "There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19."
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March 2020 found that coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) can live on stainless steel and plastic for up to three days and on cardboard for one day. As a result, "The only way to ensure that the transmission of coronavirus does not occur is to sanitize product surfaces." In other words, you should be just as leery of your foil-wrapped butter, your cardboard box of orange juice, and your plastic yogurt container as you are of your cloth mesh vegetable bag.
Restaurants in North America are very good at sanitizing reusable containers, plates, cutlery, and glasses because they adhere to strict food handling codes. Switching everything to disposable plastics will not make the risk of contamination go away. Gordon emphasizes that "what matters is whether the person who prepared or handled the food is a carrier of the virus." That means that if you're buying food from a restaurant, the best thing you can do is to "transfer food and other goods—whether delivered to your door or bought at the store—to clean containers when it makes sense to, and wash your hands thoroughly after checking the mail or venturing out of your home" (via Serious Eats).
Plastic has its own problems.
Greenpeace USA has responded to this push from the plastics industry with a statement from Oceans Campaign Director John Hocevar. He admits that we do not have all the answers in this COVID-19 crisis, but that even in the short term, "plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe, and we should not confuse corporate public relations with factual medical research." Practicing social distancing, cleaning our hands thoroughly, and disinfecting anything that enters our homes should be our main priorities, and we should view this time as an opportunity for growth and progress, fighting back against any efforts to destroy the advances we've made in recent years to reduce plastic pollution.
There are other health risks associated with plastic that go beyond the coronavirus and must be weighed, too:
"The entire lifecycle of plastic is dangerous — from its extraction to its disposal. People living in communities near refineries face elevated exposure to harmful chemicals and an increased risk of health concerns. Increased plastics and microplastics in our environment may also provide surfaces for contamination with a range of animal and human pathogens, including harmful bacteria, and allow for their wider dissemination."
Gordon echoes this when she writes that over 12,000 hazardous chemicals are used in food packaging, many known to be harmful to human health. "Migration of these toxic chemicals out of disposables into our food and drinks is not an issue with non-plastic reusables."
What can we do?
I know my own shopping habits have changed drastically in recent weeks, as I'm sure many of yours have too, now that reusable containers are not allowed at bulk food stores and grocers. I've accepted that I'll have to buy certain things in plastic for the time being, but I always look for alternative forms of packaging (preferably paper and glass) and buy in larger quantities. But this time of social distancing or quarantine is also an opportunity to make many foods from scratch that usually are purchased, which in turn reduces packaging waste and builds cooking skills for the long-term.
It is imperative that we not let one crisis turn into another. Large corporations are notorious for exploiting times of crisis to push forward their own agendas, and people tend to be less critical, less prone to carefully-weighed analysis, when they're struggling just to get by. Now's the time to do proper research, to understand that the material matters less than the way it's handled, and that we can still be safe and healthy while shopping responsibly with our own bags and bins that have been thoroughly sanitized. While some businesses may place temporary restrictions on this, now is not the time to take plastic bag bans off the table and retract progressive bills that were making a real difference.