Coronavirus pandemic prompts backslide of environmental protection work

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Austin Murphy | May 16, 2020

Fred Stemmler hadn’t seen these uninvited guests for years — nor had he missed them. But now they were back with a vengeance.

Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, was pitching in on the conveyor belt at the company’s recycling facility in south Santa Rosa just after 4:30 on Monday morning.

Moving at a brisk 10 mph, objects on the belt had been propelled through a series of rollers designed to lift light, flat objects — paper and cardboard — to the surface. Stowing away alongside those pulp products, Stemmler noticed, was “a large amount” of semi-opaque Safeway plastic bags.

Like a bad habit, they are back. Banned in California since 2016, such single-use plastic bags have returned to our lives, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. To reduce the risk of spread of the highly contagious pathogen, most Sonoma County grocers no longer allow reusable bags. That, coupled with a shortage of paper grocery bags, is contributing to a resurgence of the flimsy plastic bags Stemmler spent two hours plucking from his sorting line on Monday.

This comeback of plastic is just one way the pandemic is pausing — in some cases doing lasting damage — and, experts fear, unraveling years of work to reduce waste and improve environmental quality. From masks and gloves strewn along area roadsides and beaches to fewer options for safely disposing of hazardous household items, to the banning of reusable grocery bags and refillable coffee mugs, the intense focus on checking the virus is coming at a steep cost to the environment.

Lauren Olson is “very concerned that people are going to get out of the sustainable habits” — like bringing reusable bags to the store.

Olson is the zero waste manager at World Centric in Rohnert Park. The company makes compostable products, ranging from cups and cutlery to bags and bathroom tissue. She was admittedly “on autopilot” the day early this month when she approached the entrance to the Trader Joe’s in south Santa Rosa while carrying her reusable bags. Olson was reminded, politely but firmly by a store employee, she could not bring them into the market.

With friends and family working in grocery stores, she said, “I will do anything I can to make them feel safe.” That said, she has questions about the science upon which stores are basing their decision to ban reusable bags. Indeed, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine cited a study which found the virus causing COVID-19 is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, and 24 hours on cardboard.

Olson describes as “unfortunate” the concerted drive by the plastics industry to use the pandemic to overturn bans of plastic bags across the country. In March, Politico obtained a copy of a letter sent by the Plastics Industry Association to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking the department to publicly endorse the idea that single-use plastics are the safest choice during the virus outbreak.

“I find it pretty disgusting, for sure,” Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs, said of the plastics lobby’s willingness “to take advantage” of the pandemic to “make it seem like their products are the healthy safe option right now.”

From a health and safety standpoint, Potashner said, “I haven’t seen anything (indicating) that plastics perform better than other materials.” In fact, he said, “some of published studies show that the virus actually sticks to plastic longer than other materials.”

Recology had pledged $1 million to support a November state ballot initiative requiring producers of single-use plastic packaging, among other measures, to make their products “reusable, recyclable or compostable” by 2030.

Given the economic carnage of the coronavirus, that ballot initiative has been pushed back to November 2022, Potashner said.

Because the deadlines in the measure don’t kick in until 2030, he pointed out, “there’s not a real practical change” in delaying it for two years.

Potashner acknowledged “any momentum we were making from a policy standpoint seems to be set back.”

The cost of oil, driven to historic lows by the pandemic, is also hurting Recology, which sells recycled plastics to manufacturers. Rock-bottom petroleum prices are making it cheaper for companies to buy “virgin” — brand new — rather than recycled material.

In ways global and local, the virus has been tough on the environment. Richard James of Inverness, who curates the blog, has collected seven tons of refuse, on his back and in his kayak, from Tomales Bay to Point Reyes.

Lately, he’s been picking up a plethora of gloves and masks, from area roadways and beaches. The self-described “plastic and trash warrior” has had to expand his repertoire to discarded personal protective equipment.

Zero Waste Sonoma, the county’s agency in charge of waste management, had some tough calls to make in the wake of the county’s March 18 public health emergency shutdown. What would it do with its household hazardous waste program?

There was talk of completely shutting it down. After all, the workers who took the hazardous waste — paint, batteries, car fluids, cleaners — did their jobs in hazmat suits. With such a premium on personal protective equipment, was this service essential?

The answer was yes. “It was not something we took lightly,” said Courtney Scott, who manages that department for the agency. To help prevent illegal dumping and ensure safe disposal options, the decision was made to make the service available, at the county’s central landfill, just north of Petaluma on Mecham Road two days a week: Thursday and Friday.

In a normal week before the pandemic, 120 residents use that drop-off. In late March, on the first day it was available during the shutdown, four people showed up. But that number steadily grew, until it exceeded the pre-pandemic average. At one point in late April, workers at the site helped over 180 residents in one day. After that, the agency had to add a third day — Saturday.

What’s going on here?

Stuck at home with spare time on their hands, “people are cleaning out their garages,” said Leslie Lukacs, executive director of Zero Waste Sonoma. “They’re doing projects they haven’t had time to get to before. And we’re seeing it at our facility.”

In normal times, the agency schedules pickups of hazardous household waste all over the county. Almost all of them have been canceled until further notice. That means if you live in Healdsburg and you’ve got some old turpentine and fertilizer you need to get rid of, you have to drive it south to the central landfill.

Asked if this has led to hazardous materials being dumped illegally, Lukacs replied, “We’re not seeing that behavior. It’s a concern — that’s why we stayed open — but it hasn’t been reported to us.”

What they are seeing is full-to-overflowing yard waste bins. The same imperative driving people to deep clean their garages is also urging them, apparently, to undertake gardening and landscaping projects.

Refuse and recycling from commercial clients, meanwhile, is down around 20%, said Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin. While it tells the sad story of countless businesses in big trouble, it’s also a measure of good news.

“That’s tonnage that’s not going to the landfill,” said Lukacs — a good thing for environment and the county. “We only have 26  years left in the life of that landfill.”

More good news: with children at home, rather than at school, friendly interactions between Recology’s collectors and customers are at an all-time high, Stemmler said. One of those drivers was going about his rounds recently when he was flagged down by a young man wearing a dinosaur costume, who informed him it was his little brother’s birthday.

The birthday boy, it was further explained loved two things: dinosaurs and garbage trucks. And so the T-Rex and the garbage collector stood 6 feet apart — the driver masked, of course — posing for pictures while wishing the little brother a happy birthday.

Said Stemmler, “It was kind of an awesome moment.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at 707-521-5214 or On Twitter @ausmurph88.