For just a moment, the world was changing course. In the past few years, nations worldwide incited single-use plastic item bans: Canada vowed to phase out harmful single-use plastics by 2021 and the EU proposed a ban on single-use plastics where more sustainable alternatives exist. Things were happening, albeit slowly, to curtail plastic waste.

Then came COVID-19. Over the past four months, single-use plastics have become a necessary health requirement in avoiding the spread of the virus, just as important as keeping a two-meter distance and not touching your face. Supporting local cafes and restaurants means collecting single-use coffee cups and plastic takeout containers; buying groceries means a bundle of fresh new plastic bags; disposable wipes, bottles of hand sanitizer, and PPE amass in our cars and trash cans. Many of the sustainably-conscious among us wrestle over the moral choice between supporting local take-out restaurants or continuing to pursue a life with less waste.

The upcoming single-use plastic bans have taken a backseat in many countries. In Vancouver, the enforcement of bylaws against single-use bags, cups, straws, and utensils has been suspended until further notice. In the U.S., plastic bag bans nationwide have been reversed and reusable bags banned from supermarkets. It’s of little surprise that this sudden, extreme turn of events has been encouraged and supported largely by the Plastics Industry themselves. 

“Single-use plastic products are the most sanitary choice when it comes to many applications, especially the consumption and transport of food, whether purchased at a restaurant or at a grocery store,” wrote Tony Radoszewski, head of the plastics industry’s main U.S. lobbying group in a letter to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. “We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products.” To support their point, the letter references an oft-cited study on the harmful virus-carrying ability of reusable bags by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University. The study was, incidentally, funded by the American Chemistry Council, who represent major plastics and chemical manufacturers. 

It’s a well-timed push for the industry to expand its plastics production. The Plastics Industry face looming threats from global single-use plastic bans, given that plastic packaging accounts for roughly one-third of their plastic demand. Pair this with the recent oil price collapse in March, and the oil and gas industry’s only way to save itself is through lobbying against bans and expanding the demand for plastics worldwide. “The plastic industry is sticking to the talking points that they used well before COVID-19 and will use long after COVID-19: that plastic is the most hygienic choice, we need plastic, COVID proves we need plastic,” said Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s plastic and oceans campaign. “But those claims are not based in science.”  

“The plastic industry is sticking to the talking points that they used well before COVID-19 and will use long after COVID-19: that plastic is the most hygienic choice, we need plastic, COVID proves we need plastic – But those claims are not based in science.”

Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s plastic and oceans campaign.

The science surrounding the safety of single-use plastics is, in fact, quite different. Plastics can still harbor viruses during manufacture, transport, stocking, and use. A major study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that viruses can survive on plastic and steel for up to three days. Copper, cardboard, and cloth, however, only holds the virus for up to 24 hours from surface transmission. What’s more, over 100 scientists have recently published a signed statement issuing that reusable containers are safe to use during the pandemic but must be regularly washed in hot, soapy water, which kills the virus. A use, wash, reuse model isn’t a radical idea for businesses, either: there are some innovative small businesses that are proving that virus-safe, zero-waste models are still possible.

There’s no doubt that the health and safety of the public take priority in negotiating safer systematic changes during a pandemic. So if single-use plastics are to aid our health in the short-term, it’s crucial that communications are made to remind people of their long-term health impacts. The Plastics Industry may claim to have the public’s best interests at heart during COVID-19, but they hasten to highlight the fact that plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, including BPA, found in food containers, and Phlatates, found in cosmetics and children’s toys. Tiny microscopic micro-plastics and nano-plastics have been found to carry toxins, and are present in the air we breathe, the food we eat and water we drink. The studies into the long term impacts of plastics on human health are extensive, but they’ve taken a backseat behind their alleged ‘heroic’ ability to save lives during COVID-19.

The real damage caused by this sudden surge in single-use plastics is not the amount of waste it has generated, but the reversal of mindsets and habits. One of the most difficult challenges in encouraging sustainable behaviors is by breaking old habits to create new ones; remembering to leave reusable bags in your car or a water bottle in your bag are seemingly simple yet easily forgotten notions in enforcing good habits. Once people are made to use single-use grocery bags and disposable coffee cups again, the behavior becomes normalized. 

So – what’s the solution?

Staying on track. Ensure that your local government sticks with their new postponed single-use plastic ban date. The European Union has dismissed plastic industry calls to lift single-use plastic bans, and are ensuring their target dates are met. Greenpeace Canada is pushing for the Federal Government to create a comprehensive plastics ban list for 2021, in efforts to stick with their promises to ban single-use plastics. As plastics corporations harness this opportunity for growth, we must ensure authorities remain on track and fulfill their promises to ensure a healthier future for us and the planet.