Today we must talk about how the plastic industry is desperate to capitalize off of consumer fear around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Especially during a public health crisis, it is a deplorable thing to spread misinformation, yes?
Plastic proponents contrived a pseudo-scientific narrative insisting that single-use plastic can help people stay safe during the pandemic. They did this by using outdated research and industry-funded studies (like from the American Chemistry Council, a facade for fossil-fuel and chemical companies). None of the research actually looked at COVID-19.
Still, these guys were on the case EARLY: In a letter sent March 18, 2020, a mere week (literally one week) after the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, the Plastics Industry Association urged the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to make a public statement about “the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.” The letter continued:
"We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk.”
This letter is some diabolical shit. As the country was just beginning to be ravaged by a deadly virus, the plastic people were putting their heads together and were like, “You know, Tony, this could be a very opportune moment for us to get ahead of those pesky plastic bag bans.”
I think the PIA could have probably, instead, been like, “Tony, my man, let’s produce as much PPE as possible for free and position plastic as a hero of the pandemic.”
The effort isn’t just evil, but also really clever marketing — all based on a foundation of… zero evidence. Assuming that single-use plastic is a safer material to use during the pandemic suggests (sometimes subtly, sometimes not so very) that other types of materials are more likely to spread the virus.
This simply is not true. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that is transmitted from person to person, not from grocery bag to person (here is a statement from the USDA and FDA that says there’s no credible evidence that packaging is a likely source of the viral transmission of COVID-19.)
Oh, but better safe than sorry, you might think. I’ll just use a plastic bag rather than this tote bag I’ve been carrying around just in case.
Disposable products are no safer than reusable ones; in fact, they might make us more vulnerable to the virus (even though there’s still no evidence that materials can transmit the virus to people).
Stay with me here. The plastics industry is working its little tail off trying to make people believe that single-use products are “cleaner” in terms of hosting the virus. In truth, when COVID-19 does linger, it’s actually shown to linger on plastic for longer than it does on, say, paper or cardboard or cloth.
Different materials = different periods of lingering, according to a bunch of studies on this very issue. But this doesn’t mean we need to throw away everything we touch and undo much of the progress we’ve made in refill/reuse systems. (I DON’T WANT TO LIVE IN A WORLD WHERE THERE IS NO BULK NUT/GRANOLA SECTION IN THE GROCERY STORE.)
Back in June, more than 115 health experts signed off on a statement addressing the safety of reusables and COVID-19. The cliff notes:
The plastic industry sucks.
You don’t have to throw things away to reduce potential infection. You can just … clean the potentially contaminated things.
One study showed the infectious virus lasted up to 24 hours on paper and cardboard and between two to three days on plastic and stainless steel, bitches.
Another study found that the virus was no longer active on print or tissue paper after just three hours, whereas it was active up to one day on cloth, up to three days on glass, and SIX days on plastic and stainless steel.
—> Um, hello? These findings suggest that a reusable cloth tote bag would carry the virus for much, MUCH less time than would a one-and-done plastic bag. L'horreur. 🥖
“To prevent transmission through objects and surfaces, one can assume that any object or surface in a public space — reusable or disposable — could be contaminated with the virus. Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded.”
—> I bolded the last sentence above because it is so important. I think, as human beings, we are more likely to worry about immediate threats/grossness than delayed/accumulating threats (and this is where the plastic industry people got devious). Like, we’re all more likely to run from a bear as it approaches us (except for me, who would like to pet it, see cuteness below) than we are to run from a nearby chemical plant that is steadily releasing deadly toxins into the air.
I think I could find a better analogy here, but I’m not going to, and I hope you still understand what I mean. This whole setup might be one of the greatest underlying problems of capitalism/pollution: We’ve built products and churned out so much garbage in an effort to run from societal bears while forgetting to examine the potential dangers of those products and garbage.
Now we’re here, desperate for single-use plastic bags at the grocery store because we don’t want to get coronavirus, while choosing those plastic bags is probably the riskiest pick in terms of both coronavirus and the long-term health consequences associated with plastic enveloping planet earth.
Blah, blah, blah I THINK this makes sense, right? Moving right along..
Unfortunately, a lot of the misinformation around disposables has already cemented itself into our collective consumer/retail consciousness. Individual ketchup packets are allegedly scarce, the Wall Street Journal reports, in part because people perceive them as safer to use than communal bottles (eh, I also think this is because people are ordering more takeout and restaurants are understandably doing everything they can to be perceived as “safe,” whether or not the actions are scientifically sound or just virtuous showmanship).
The use of all types of disposable tableware has increased throughout the pandemic, and it all happened right at a point when many counties and states were getting on board with banning them (hence the PIA’s eye for opportunity).
I TOTALLY get using disposables — it makes perfect sense — and I don’t think relying on plastic forks and knives and cups was the wrong move at first: At the beginning of the pandemic, we had no idea how this terrifying virus was spreading, and businesses and people were focused on doing everything that seemed smart and reasonable in terms of safety.
But now, we know more and we know better. It would be a shame (and a death sentence, #climatechange) to prolong our reliance on disposable goods and never return to more sustainable models.
There’s a petition using the hashtag #ReopenWithReuse that’s asking restaurants to resist using disposables — which, anyway, would be only a performative act of precaution, even if the intentions are good.
On its website, the campaign states:
We are calling on our beloved restaurants, festivals, and national parks (++ all foodservice venues/events) to reopen with nontoxic reuse. We know that foodservice businesses like restaurants already require strict food safety standards to make sure reusables are sanitized and safe!
As concerned global consumers, we trust the data that shows reusable items are safe for use even during COVID, and we WANT to be served in reusables and NEED a systemic shift towards nontoxic reusables to achieve a sustainable future!
Single-use plastics have been falsely promoted as a way to avoid COVID transmission in restaurants.
Out of all the things going on in this dumb, beautiful world, asking restaurants to “reopen with reuse” may not be high on your list of priorities. But I do believe this is worth prioritizing; how we behave “after this is all over” (or whatever comes next) will absolutely set the tone for our response to future health and safety concerns. What we don’t need is for people to have such pandemic PTSD or germophobia that they buy into a (genuinely false) narrative that disposable things will keep them safer.
Friends and foes: I’m not saying single-use plastic disposables need to be banned immediately now that we have more information about how the virus spreads. There is a lot of emotion — valid fear — that remains around the coronavirus, and we are not out of the hole. I just hope we can be thoughtful about what we use and who we trust as we begin to build back to a new normal, or whatever life we get as time continues to pass.
This was a long one, and I thank you for reading. See ya.