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Plastics industry using coronavirus to demonize reusable bags | COMMENTARY

Amid worries about coronavirus clinging to reusable bags, many stores have banned their use, something environmental groups say is propaganda being pushed by plastic manufacturers to sell more plastic bags.
Amid worries about coronavirus clinging to reusable bags, many stores have banned their use, something environmental groups say is propaganda being pushed by plastic manufacturers to sell more plastic bags. (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)

The plastics industry has exploited fear around COVID-19 to sell more single-use plastic. In recent weeks, it activated a multimillion dollar echo chamber that is straight out of the fossil fuel industry’s playbook, and involves many of the same fossil-funded corporate front groups that tout industry-funded research and help publish alarmist media coverage. The same actors have been doing this for years to deny climate science, and now they have turned their attention toward halting the progress of reusable bags, and saw a pandemic as their opportunity to do so. It is shameful.

The plastic industry’s propaganda effort, that says reusable bags can contribute to the spread of COVID-19, ignores the fact that the current research we have shows that the virus could live on plastic surfaces longer than others in our grocery stores. New research from the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UCLA and Princeton University reveals that SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can live on plastic surfaces for as long as two to three days. The study also shows that standard disinfecting and cleaning procedures can inactivate the virus.

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This new study clearly made the plastic industry nervous. Rather than allow people to focus on all of the plastic surfaces to avoid throughout a grocery store, the industry went on offense to create a narrative meant to scare people from using reusable bags. This exploitative attack was meant to help boost industry profits in a time of crisis. Their notion of plastic surfaces being “clean and safe” was in danger, so by demonizing reusables, they are working to convince people that consumers are too dumb to clean their own bags or bag their own groceries.

Single-use plastics — the often unnecessary packaging and bags that we use once and toss into a bin — threaten people’s health, our environment and our communities. That is why communities have been fighting back against the plastics industry. That is why bag bans and plastic reduction efforts have exploded in recent years. In the middle of a pandemic, those threats do not go away. As communities on the front lines near plastics refineries face elevated risks from harmful chemicals and increased health concerns, it is incumbent upon all of us to stand up to exploitative industries that try to profit from a global health crisis.

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Numerous medical professionals have now weighed in to say that reusable bags can be utilized safely, but that we should be smart about it — as we need to be with any human interaction at the moment. That means cleaning and disinfecting the surfaces to ensure that germs are not present, and bagging our own groceries rather than having a store clerk do it. And when we get home, the best available advice is to wash and disinfect the surface of anything we have purchased at the store to ensure it is sanitary.

It is sad that industry opportunists have seen this pandemic as a moment to spread fear and misinformation. Several cities and states have temporarily reversed course on their plastic bag bans following industry pressure. It is absolutely understandable for governments to be operating with an abundance of caution right now, but the reality is that reusable bags pose no greater risk than any plastic surface in a supermarket — or any other personal belonging that we carry into a store. As long as we take every precaution to maintain a safe distance from store employees and keep our bags away from others, reusable programs should be allowed to continue. Beyond the pandemic, businesses and governments should continue to work together to ensure reusable systems instill confidence in the safety of workers and shoppers alike.

In this current crisis, people need factual medical research, not public relations from the plastics industry. If the plastics industry cared so much about people’s health, it would be mobilizing alongside legislators to get more ventilators and masks to our hospitals, not fighting reusable bags. Now is not the time for industry games.

Perry Wheeler (perry.wheeler@greenpeace.org) is a communications specialist for Greenpeace USA working to expose industry exploitation of COVID-19. He is based in Baltimore.

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