What We Know—and Don’t Know—about Plastics and the Coronavirus Pandemic

The pandemic is laying bare just how critical waste management systems are to all of us

In many places around the United States, if you are healthy enough to continue grocery shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, you are probably noticing some changes at the checkout counter. From San Francisco to New York City, a growing number of officials and retailers are forbidding shoppers from bringing their own reusable bags, handing out single-use plastic bags instead.

Without a doubt, we are facing an unprecedented crisis with the spread of the coronavirus, and we must all prioritize health and safety and do everything we can to minimize its reach. At Ocean Conservancy, our staff has been working remotely since mid-March. We urge everyone to follow guidelines provided by public health authorities and to do your part to #stayhome and #flattenthecurve.

Plastics have an important role to play in this pandemic, protecting those working on the front lines in the form of gloves, masks and other medical equipment. But it is worrying that some members of the plastics industry are taking advantage of a climate of fear and uncertainty to actively suspend or roll back hard-won environmental measures to reduce plastic pollution. They are claiming “an abundance of caution” as the reason to reinstate widespread use of single-use plastic bags.

At Ocean Conservancy, we always evaluate the body of science to make informed decisions. Right now, the data indicate that the coronavirus actually persists longer on plastics than on other materials. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published results of an experiment showing that “SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces.” This suggests that bags made of paper are likely to be less risky than those made of plastics.

Meanwhile, to our knowledge, there are no data to indicate that reusable bags are any more contaminated than other surfaces in public areas—including the checkout counter at grocery stores, where single-use plastic bags are usually stored and handled by any number of people.

Ocean Conservancy recognizes that some legislators may decide to pause or delay implementation of bag laws during the global pandemic, and we fully respect their authority to do so. But if these temporary modifications become permanent, this could undermine efforts to reduce single-use plastics and ocean plastic pollution going forward.

Ocean Conservancy won’t allow that to happen. It is abundantly clear that plastic bags are devastating for our ocean. They are consistently among the top 10 items collected by volunteers with Ocean Conservancy’s annual International Coastal Cleanup. Plastic bags are also among the deadliest forms of marine debris and can persist for decades (or longer) in the environment. For the sake of our ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it, we are committed to ensuring that any decisions to suspend or roll back plastic bag measures remain temporary.

But we also hope that this pandemic signals a larger truth: how much waste we produce, and how we manage it, really matters, whether that waste is single-use plastic or anything else.

Reports are coming in from around the world of massive amounts of personal protective equipment like masks and gloves clogging sidewalk drains and washing into waterways. In places where waste collection has temporarily shut down, people are taking matters into their own hands, dumping potentially hazardous materials into the environment. The UN recently issued guidance highlighting how critical it is to human health to properly identify, sort and dispose of medical waste—including single-use items like masks and gloves.

The pandemic is laying bare just how critical waste management systems are to all of us, and how easily these systems can be overwhelmed by our reliance on unnecessary single-use plastics. Over the last decade, Ocean Conservancy has invested substantially in research that identifies ways to improve waste collection and recycling in parts of the world that need it most. When we are on the other side of this crisis, we will get back to work building the systems that keep both humans and our ocean healthy. And we will get back to work on banning the bag as well.

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