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Plastic bags, forks and containers are everywhere during the pandemic, increasing pollution

Plastic bags, forks and containers are everywhere during the pandemic, increasing pollution


Plastic bags, forks and containers are everywhere during the pandemic, increasing pollution

Nathan Bomey

Trash turned into festive display to raise awareness of plasticA Florida organization has turned trash into a festive light display to help raise awareness about how the waste people produce affects the oceans.The pandemic has triggered a rise in pollution from single-use plastics and undermined the movement to ban their usage.Opponents of plastic bags, cutlery and personal protective equipment say the material is endangering the environment by threatening wildlife and drinking water.Supporters – namely, the plastics industry and major retailers – say plastics remain cheaper and safer for consumers and should not be banished at a time when Americans are facing a major health risk and financial troubles.The clash over plastics reached a tipping point in the early days of the pandemic, when environmental activists decried a major plastic trade group’s call for the federal government to publicly back plastics and oppose bans.While that never happened, watchdogs say the plastics industry has nonetheless capitalized on the pandemic by misleadingly portraying its products as necessary for public health.Plastic bags reemergeBecause of the pandemic, non-recycled, single-use plastic waste, primarily from medical equipment, food delivery and takeout, “has gone up materially,” according to a report by plastics industry analyst Simon Powell of investment bank Jefferies.At the same time, plastic bags have reemerged after some retailers temporarily banned reusable bags. Several states, including California, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and New York, took steps to delay, weaken or reverse laws banning plastic bags.Still hunting for Clorox wipes?: Shortages now likely to last until mid-2021, company saysUPS executive: FedEx, UPS to ‘split country into two’ for COVID-19 vaccine distribution“The pandemic is eroding hard-fought efforts to reduce the proliferation of single-use plastics,” Powell wrote in a recent research note. “Governments are rolling back or delaying bans, and virus-driven behavioral changes have fueled increased plastic consumption by consumers.”He also noted that the single-use plastic demand from medical, food delivery and grocery is up, offsetting declines from restaurants, industrial packaging and beverages.10 million bags per minutePlastics, when not recycled or reused, are harmful to the environment because they don’t biodegrade and are made using fossil fuels that cause climate change. Worldwide, people use up to 10 million plastic bags per minute, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.Up to 13 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in oceans every year, reflecting the equivalent of one garbage truck every minute, according to a recent report by The Pew Charitable Trusts.Environmentalists accuse the plastics industry of lying about the dangers of reusable containers and bags, which experts say are safe to use but should be periodically washed.“Right out of the gate the plastic industry exploited fears around the pandemic to try to convince people that single-use plastics were necessary to keep us safe and that reusables were dirty and dangerous,” said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director at Greenpeace USA.A letter sent by the major plastics trade group, the Plastics Industry Association, to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar on March 18 exhorted the department to “investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.”It further called on the department to oppose plastic bag bans “as a public safety risk.”Canada plans to ban single-use plastics by 2021Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announces plans to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021. Speaking at a nature reserve south of Montreal, Trudeau said items to be banned include such as water bottles, plastic bags and straws. (June 10)Brendan Thomas, vice president of communication for the Plastics Industry Association, defended the organization’s letter, saying single-use plastics remain cheap, durable and sanitary – all particularly positive qualities during the pandemic, when millions of Americans have lost their jobs and are trying to stay safe. And in the medical field, plastics have been crucial in gloves, face masks, face shields, gowns and other products.“Consumers are fortunate to have plastics and single-use plastics at their disposal to use to protect themselves,” Thomas said.He noted that plastic bag bans or taxes can lead to higher costs for consumers and retailers.“There are groups that may want to ban plastic items and single-use plastic items, but what they’re really doing is hurting workers,” Thomas said.Jennie Romer, legal associate for the ocean conservation group Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative, said the plastics industry’s action led to temporary legislative setbacks for environmental groups.Ban temporarily shelved during COVIDMany bans on plastic bag bans were temporarily shelved, while some businesses have temporarily disallowed reusable bags.Even localities known for aggressive measures to protect the environment have, in some cases, taken action favoring plastics this year.In the early weeks of the pandemic, San Francisco, one of the first cities in the U.S. to ban the use of plastic bags, issued an order preventing businesses from “permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs or other reusable items from home.”  And in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker ordered 139 municipalities that had placed restrictions on single-use bags to overturn those laws, according to multiple reports.Still, Romer noted that many states and localities have stuck by their bans. As of Sept. 14, 22 states have statewide bag laws or regional plastic laws of some kind. But 16 have laws in place preventing bans or restrictions, according to Romer’s nonprofit noted that some policymakers are beginning to resume talk about taking action against plastics. This summer, New Jersey adopted a law outlawing single-use plastic and paper bags beginning May 2022. The law will also allow plastic straws but require customers to request them beginning in November 2021.“I think that was a good sign that legislatures are understanding the issue more and are no longer afraid to move forward,” said Romer, author of the forthcoming book, “Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics.”Takeout boom during COVIDThe takeout boom has created a new frontier in the battle against single-use plastics. About 10 laws have been passed throughout the nation cracking down on the use of plastics in takeout, most of them in California, Romer said. New Jersey’s new law also bans disposable polystyrene foam food containers.Environmental activists are pressing businesses and policymakers to require consumers to ask for plasticware instead of automatically getting it along with their food. Plastic cutlery is generally not recyclable.Romer said reducing plasticware in takeout would benefit restaurants.“It is something that ultimately would save restaurants money if they’re providing less of this stuff,” she said.Perhaps the most challenging area for plastics opponents is in the medical field, where it’s difficult to make a reasonable argument that caregivers can avoid using disposable items. But advocates say some disposable materials could potentially be transitioned into reusable alternatives.What’s certain is that most consumers have viable alternatives to single-use masks and gloves, for example.“People are picking a lot of masks and gloves off of beaches,” Romer said.Starbucks, Costco make an effort While policymakers may be hesitant or refuse to take action, some environmental proponents are hopeful that corporations will act on their own.Romer noted that restaurant innovators are working on new reusable takeout containers, such as Starbucks cups. And retailers like Whole Foods, Costco and Trader Joes don’t provide plastic bags at all.In July, a consortium of Walmart, Target, Kroger, CVS and Walgreens announced a more than $15 million commitment to the Beyond the Bag Initiative, a three-year project inviting people to submit designs to “reinvent the plastic retail bag” by creating a more sustainable version.Dick’s Sporting Goods and Kroger have set a goal of eliminating single-use plastic bags by 2025.Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow, a group that promotes corporate social responsibility, praised the Beyond the Bag Initiative as a positive step. But he said there’s cause for moving faster.“We need to see much bigger commitments,” he said. “It’s great if you can find some new innovative delivery systems that people haven’t thought of, but in the short term why keep using plastic when many of your competitors have gone to paper?”Repurpose more plasticThomas, the Plastics Industry Association representative, said plastics makers and users have been unfairly characterized as insensitive to the issue of plastic waste.“The plastics industry is as concerned as anybody about the environmental impacts of the manufacture or sales of plastics. And there are a number of initiatives underway to protect the environment, to clean up the environment,” he said. “What we’d like to do is recycle, reuse and repurpose more of it.”Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.

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