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Opinion: COVID-19 plastic bag revival relies on industry propaganda

As cities and states pause plastic bag bans, it’s important to know that the plastics industry has exploited COVID-19 as an opportunity to push single-use plastic bags and packaging as safe, despite a lack of evidence to support that.

The same fossil fuel companies that have lobbied for an industry bailout see plastic as a vital piece of their profits. The petrochemical industry will stop at nothing to keep us stuck on dirty energy.

Plastic industry surrogates have lobbied against reusable bags, urging governments to ban them and embrace disposable plastics instead. Front groups have touted industry-funded research to claim that reusables are dangerous, though none of the studies they cite even include COVID-19 or coronaviruses. In fact, the most relevant study from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA and Princeton University shows that the virus can live on plastic surfaces longer than others — a convenient point for industry to ignore in its PR push.

The best advice from health experts urges people to clean reusable bags if they choose to use them, as they should with any surface. Bagging our own groceries rather than having a store employee do it can avoid hand to hand contact as well. More than anything, health experts say we need good hygiene and sanitation to protect ourselves and others.

Nonetheless, several cities and states have paused or delayed plastic bag bans. Some retailers have temporarily banned both reusable bags and reusable mugs. Many of these decisions are well-intentioned, even though the fear around reusables was largely spread through industry propaganda. At a time when retail workers are at risk and shoppers are overwhelmingly stressed, we should be doing whatever it takes to make people feel safe, in line with the best available science.

But this should not be an excuse to go back in time and keep fossil fuel industry profits high into the future. That is exactly what corporate front groups are hoping for when they promote fear and the need to “ban reusables.” They want these decisions to be permanent. And they want single-use plastics to live to fight another day.

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We already know how throwaway plastics pollute our health, our communities, our air, our water and our food. We already know that plastic refineries put frontline communities at risk through harmful chemicals and increased health impacts. We already know that these unnecessary plastics never go away and that the overburdened recycling industry is not the answer. This pandemic will pass, and when it does, we will work together to make sure the age of single-use plastic passes soon afterwards.

This fight is about much more than the reusable bags and mugs that industry wants to demonize. This fight is about striking a blow to the fossil fuel industry and ensuring that the $200 billion petrochemical buildout is stopped in its tracks. It is about protecting and uplifting workers, people and the planet over industry profits. We must not allow unnecessary plastics to see another day because our ability to tackle climate change depends on it.

That means that people, businesses and governments that care about tackling single-use plastics and the climate crisis need to be more creative after this pandemic. Reusable systems need to instill confidence in the safety of workers and shoppers. Businesses and governments must work to ensure systems are in place to trade out reusables we return, sanitize them and provide clean ones. Not only will this protect our environment and health, it will provide much-needed jobs at a time when we need it most.

One thing is clear: Life as we know it has completely shifted because of COVID-19. Moving forward, we can choose one of two paths, returning to a world dominated by big polluters or creating one that puts people and planet first.

Ivy Schlegel is a researcher in San Francisco with Greenpeace USA who has been investigating the plastic industry’s exploitation of COVID-19.

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