June 26, 2020 | Joseph Winters
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, fossil fuel and plastic industry groups have said that reusable grocery bags and food containers spread the coronavirus. To stay healthy, they’ve encouraged consumers to double down on supposedly safer single-use plastic — things like disposable cups, cutlery, and shopping bags.
“As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital,” wrote Plastics Industry Association president and CEO Tony Radoszewski in March. “We live longer, healthier, and better because of single-use plastics.”
But health experts don’t think that a pivot to single-use plastic is necessary. In a statement released on Monday, more than 125 virologists, epidemiologists, and health experts from 18 different countries said it’s clear that reusables are safe to use during the pandemic. You just have to wash them.
“Reusables are not the culprit of spreading coronavirus,” said Miriam Gordon, policy director for UPSTREAM, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce plastic pollution and that helped draft the health experts’ statement. She told Grist she worries that industry fearmongering has overblown the risks of transmission via surface contact — basically, the idea that reusables spread the virus onto people’s bodies and onto other surfaces. As far as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is aware, there have been no documented cases of COVID-19 caused by touching a contaminated surface.
Based on the latest available evidence, the coronavirus is mostly spread through close contact with other people via airborne droplets. These tiny, coronavirus-carrying particles exit people’s mouths when they cough, sneeze, or talk.
But according to a recent research brief from Greenpeace, which also helped organize the health experts’ statement, many think tanks and PR firms with financial connections to oil and plastic companies have tried to convince the public otherwise. Through op-eds, policy briefs, and articles published around the country, they helped spread the idea that reusables are dangerous “petri dishes” for infection.
“Reusable bags are notoriously dirty and may spread the virus,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board opined in mid-March.
Gordon says many of the arguments against reusables have been grounded in “junk science,” much of which is outdated, not related to the coronavirus, or industry-influenced. One frequently cited paper, for example, suggests that reusable bags can introduce harmful bacteria into a grocery store. But even when that paper came out roughly a decade ago, scientists were quick to raise objections, pointing out that the only bacterial strains detected on the reusable bags were common and benign.
“A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” said Consumers Union senior staff scientist Michael Hansen after the study was published in 2010.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that paper was underwritten by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), a lobbying group whose members include ExxonMobil, Dow, DuPont, and others. In 2009, the ACC was criticized for successfully pressuring California education officials to add a section called “Advantages of Plastic Shopping Bags” to high school students’ textbooks.
Duke University senior lecturing fellow Michele Okoh, who signed the new statement, worries that COVID-19 fears may have helped undo much of the past few years’ progress on reducing single-use plastics. Pre-pandemic, plastic bag bans had been implemented in dozens of U.S. cities and in eight states. But following the publication of pro-plastic op-eds, policy recommendations, and articles, an aura of uncertainty helped push many state and local governments to temporarily suspend or delay legislation banning or disincentivizing single-use plastics. These included places like Maine, New York, Denver, Albuquerque, and Boston, among others. While some of those places have recently moved forward with their bans or reinstated them, others have not, and some businesses continue to prohibit reusables in their stores.
To be sure, advocates for reusables aren’t saying there’s nothing to worry about. ”We aren’t recommending that care be thrown to the wind,” Okoh told Grist. Recent studies have shown that the virus can persist on hard surfaces for a surprisingly long time, making sanitation essential. Ironically, it lasts the longest on plastic — up to six days, according to one study. That’s about the same as on stainless steel, and much longer than on paper, cardboard, glass, or cloth.
The key to safe reusables, according to the health experts’ statement, is actually quite simple: Just employ “basic hygiene.” Spray household disinfectant on hard surfaces. For dishes and cutlery, use a dishwasher. Bags can be washed using the “warmest appropriate water setting” for all items. And of course, wash your hands and keep them off of your face.
For restaurants and industrial settings, Gordon says existing food safety codes are already sufficiently stringent to prevent the spread of coronavirus. “They are known to be incredibly health-protective,” she told Grist.
The experts’ statement comes amid increasing concern that the pandemic is causing a rapid increase in the world’s plastic consumption. Even before coronavirus, an estimated 13 million metric tons of plastic pollution flowed into the ocean annually. Now environmental advocates are worried that a spike in our use of disposables in restaurants, grocery stores, bars, hotels, and elsewhere as pandemic restrictions lift could add to the glut. Some cities in New Jersey are already saying they’ve been overwhelmed by the deluge of plastic takeout containers.
The effects of this plastic consumption won’t be felt equally. Low-income communities of color are already disproportionately impacted by pollution from plastic production and disposal. When they don’t make their way into the oceans, “these plastics and unrecyclable foodware are ending up in landfills,” Gordon explained. “Or worse: in incinerators, where the neighboring communities are being inundated with dioxins and particulate emissions that harm their health.”
Other environmental advocates fear that as states continue to reopen, state and federal guidelines will overemphasize the importance of single-use plastic. In late May, the CDC told businesses that when reopening, disposable dishes, utensils, tableware, and more should be the default option. It walked back that recommendation a few days later, but the Food and Drug Administration is still recommending that restaurants stock up on single-use carryout containers and tableware. Connecticut is telling hotels to offer disposable items wherever possible. Alaska is asking bars, restaurants, and child care centers to offer disposable food service items.
Ben Locwin, a health care executive who signed the statement, says that although misinformation has been rampant during the crisis, now is an opportunity to push back. “We can inoculate people with knowledge,” he told Grist. By educating the public and elected officials on the safety of reusables, an informed, science-based approach could protect people’s lives and the future of the planet. “We shouldn’t mortgage the future to the current panic,” he said.