Plastic producers take advantage of coronavirus pandemic, increase production

White plastic grocery bag with red “thank you” text on gray background
Photo by Christopher Vega

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, the country paused. A public uncertain of the future took shelter in their homes, trying to determine who to trust and how to protect themselves in a world that seemed new and unfamiliar.

But even as uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, plastic manufacturers are taking advantage of the opportunity to increase production of single-use plastics like bags and bottles, claiming that they are safer than their reusable alternatives.

Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation, said that plastic manufacturers, motivated by profit, are using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to increase plastic production by suspending deposit-return programs and plastic bag bans.

The Plastics Industry Association, a group which represents plastic producers, has a history of lobbying against plastic bag bans and other legislative efforts that aim to decrease the amount of single-use plastics being produced. On March 18, they submitted a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting a delay to bans on single-use plastics.

“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 by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk,” the letter said.

The letter cited three separate studies, which supported their claim that viruses and bacteria were spread through reusable bags. However, the American Chemical Society later published their own study on June 16 saying that the three studies cited in the letter were “of questionable applicability” since COVID-19 is primarily airborne and not spread through surfaces like the bacteria and viruses in the other studies.

However, the American Chemical Society was three months late. The plastic industry had already been successful in promoting single-use plastics as a safer alternative to reusables with questionable evidence to back their claims.

Large companies like Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Trader Joe’s and Target banned reusable cups and bags in their stores in March, pointing to the public health concerns spread by the plastic industry. These bans are still in place at Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks even though the Food and Drug Administration says on their website that these items are safe.

While the plastic industry was successful in keeping their products viable during the coronavirus pandemic, this has not always been the case. Environmentalists have pushed hard for legislation making them responsible for the waste they produce, and the pandemic has threatened any progress they’ve made.

During the pandemic, plastic companies focused on promoting single-use plastic packaging, which accounts for 42% of all plastic production. According to a study by Science Advances , most plastics produced for this purpose last less than a year and about 9% are recycled into new products; the remaining 81% is incinerated or put in a landfill.

Pecci said there are two main ways environmentalists have used to hold producers accountable, both of which have been suspended in many places: bans on single-use plastic bags and deposit-return programs.

While there are no federal bans on plastic bags, 10 states have passed bans or fees, 17 states have legislation in progress and multiple cities have also enacted bans or fees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures .

Pecci said another effective way to reduce plastic waste is what she calls bottle bills, or deposit-return programs.

Deposit-return programs place a fee on each container, which is refunded when the container is returned to a redemption center. These programs, in combination with requirements on how much recycled content each new bottle must contain, incentivize and require producers to recapture the plastics they produce, which prevents more plastic from being produced.

“We know that deposit-return systems, meaning bottle bills, really work,” she said. “The recycling that is getting done from the bottle bills in the 10 states that have them is more than we get done curbside every year.”

Data from the Container Recycling Institute agrees. States which have bottle bills recycle about 46% more plastic bottles than states which do not.

However, local and state governments have reversed existing laws, halted legislative progress, and paused deposit-return programs, all due to questionable public health concerns spread by the plastic industry. Pecci said it’s difficult to motivate companies to do what’s right when they aren’t forced to take responsibility, and the pandemic has made that even more difficult.

“You’re causing these harms and you have to be responsible for it,” she said.

Journalism student at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.