How the Pandemic is Creating a Plastic Boom | Civil Eats

How the Pandemic is Creating a Plastic Boom

Efforts to ban single-use plastic have come to a screeching halt, without evidence that plastic is safer than other reusable packaging.

a woman buying food in a plastic bag from a farmers' market

Instead of taking CSA members’ cloth bags and returning them filled with fresh vegetables, farmers Jesse Frost and Hannah Crabtree delivered mid-April shares in plastic bags. And for the weekly farmers’ market in Lexington, Kentucky, they used smaller plastic bags to individually package their greens, which would normally be loose in bins for shoppers to reach into.

Single-use plastic doesn’t align with Rough Draft Farmstead’s commitment to environmentalism. But as they hustle to reinvent their business plan for 2020 while continuing to produce and sell food during a pandemic, they’ve had to adjust the hierarchy that determines their priorities, Frost said.

“Everything’s kind of been scrambled,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is figure out what our marketing approach is. Then, figure out what the distribution looks like. Then, we have to figure out how to keep all of those things sanitary.”

As farmers, farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and restaurants have all raced to confront a quickly reordered reality, the qualities that contributed to single-use plastic becoming such a ubiquitous problem over decades—it is incredibly cheap and convenient—are contributing to a resurgence in use. And it’s happening at a time when the recycling of plastic has been severely curtailed.

“I’m probably using more plastic from one grocery trip than I normally would in months,” said Abby K. Cannon, a Long Island-based nutritionist who also coaches clients on low-waste living.

While there is no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted on food or that wrapping food in plastic is safer, all of the activities that surround the use of reusables—reaching, swapping, and sharing—are off limits. And throwing something away that came from outside the home and was touched by unknown hands simply feels safer.

There is no evidence that the coronavirus is transmitted on food or that wrapping food in plastic is safer

Some grocery stores and counties have banned cloth bags, and more people are shopping for groceries online, which generally results in more plastic packaging. Farmers’ market tables are now stocked with vegetables pre-packed into plastic bags, and CSA pick-ups that were once self-serve now involve plastic bags inside larger plastic bags or boxes. In addition, coffee shops that used to give discounts for bringing cups from home have stopped allowing them.

In the midst of this, the plastics industry has stepped in to spread misinformation about the dangers of reusable bags and has successfully reversed plastic bag bans in some states and cities. And now, the plastics recycling industry is asking for a $1 billion bailout from the U.S. government.

It’s clear that at the moment, concerns about the waste generated from single-use packaging, and especially plastic, in the food system will have to take a backseat to the immediate health, safety, and economic concerns that have arisen during the pandemic.

But activism to fight plastic waste during the pandemic persists: On April 22, a new documentary on the costs of plastic pollution premiered. And some say the temporary shift will be gradually worked out as we learn more about COVID-19 and the shape of the new economy—and that it could even lead to Americans asking deeper questions about sustainable habits.

Grocery Store Plastic and the Campaign Against Reusables

Around the country, restrictions on reusable bags at grocery stores began to pick up steam as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

The governor of New Hampshire banned reusable bags in the state in late March; San Francisco banned reusable bags in stores citywide at the beginning of April, California lifted a fee on plastic bags for two months at the end of April, and Maine delayed the implementation of a plastic bag ban that was set to go into effect in late April. Meanwhile, supermarket chains have implemented their own policies: Trader Joe’s, for example, is not allowing reusable bags at any of its locations.

While many of these policies sprung out of an abundance of caution, Mother Jones recently documented how the plastics industry and affiliated think tanks are attempting to use the momentum to reverse plastic bag bans around the country. To do so, they are spreading false information about the dangers of coronavirus on reusables and asking the federal government to back that misinformation.

lettuce in a plastic bag. photo CC-licensed by Sharyn Morrow

lettuce in a plastic bag. (Photo CC-licensed by Sharyn Morrow)

“We are asking that the Department of Health and Human Services… make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” Tony Radoszewski, the president and CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, recently wrote in a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The federal government has not obliged, but the coordinated PR campaign has resulted in misleading news coverage, influenced public opinion, and led to local bans on reusable bags.

The strategy is nothing new: In the past, industry groups have funded studies that found bacteria on reusable bags. While scientists said the research merely pointed to the importance of washing bags, the industry has wielded it to fight plastic bag bans. In a new report, Greenpeace documents how exploiting concerns about COVID-19 is a continuation of a long-running misinformation campaign to overturn plastic bag bans.

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However, expert after expert has detailed how there is no evidence that COVID-19 lives longer on cloth or cotton compared to plastic. (There have been no studies specifically on the coronavirus and reusable bags.) One study found the virus can live on plastic for a few days, versus 24 hours on cardboard. Overall, experts emphasize that the risk of contracting coronavirus from touching any bag is very low, and that most transmission occurs from breathing in particles when in close proximity to other people.

Still, at a time when more deaths of grocery workers are being reported, it makes sense to take every precaution to minimize contact with shoppers. Some stores, like Target and Mom’s Organic Markets, are doing this not by banning reusable bags, but by requiring that shoppers bag their own groceries.

At Whole Foods, Long Island nutritionist Cannon normally does most of her shopping by filling her own containers in the bulk section. But the first time she hit the supermarket after the shelter-in-place order had been issued in New York, she couldn’t bring herself to handle the shared scoops. “It made me afraid,” she said. “Right now, I’d much prefer to get something prepackaged. I don’t trust other people washing their hands, or even myself and my bags.”

Plastic is also having a moment thanks to an increase in grocery delivery. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that one in five adults in the U.S. say they’ve used a “food delivery service” instead of going to a grocery store or restaurant, due to COVID-19.

On a recent afternoon, a delivery person, wearing plastic gloves and a disposable mask, carried about 15 plastic grocery bags from her van to a Baltimore, Maryland rowhouse and crammed them into the vestibule. Even companies like Whole Foods that deliver orders in paper bags often package individual food items inside those bags—like a bunch of bananas—in plastic. Grocery delivery relied on plastic before the pandemic, but shoppers who would have grabbed an unwrapped bunch of bananas and used reusable bags before are now relying on it.

However, there are exceptions to the new tendency toward plastic. Brooklyn-based The Wally Shop, for example, applies bulk bin principles to online grocery, sending staple foods in reusable jars that shoppers send back to be cleaned and put back into circulation. In early April, the company opened up nationwide shipping for the first time and has been struggling to keep up with demand. In other words, many consumers are still okay with reusable packaging, it turns out, if social distancing is maintained.

Plastic in Local Food Distribution

At the National Young Farmers Coalition, Business Services Director Cara Fraver helps farmers understand and implement food safety practices, through services like the recent publication “A Small Farmer’s Practical Guide to Food Safety.” Fraver said that while even the small farms that didn’t fall under specific food-safety rules mandated by Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) or Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) were often paying attention to safety before, coronavirus upped the ante.

“This is certainly a galvanizing moment of starting to take your food safety practices incredibly seriously [as a farmer], in the same way that we’re all suddenly doing so much better with not touching our faces and washing our hands,” Fraver said.

Some of those farm practices that are being adopted involve single-use plastic, like lining produce boxes with a new liner each time they’re reused (a practice that was already required for some farms) and using lots of throwaway gloves. “That is a little antithetical to a lot of the reasons we see people excited about farming from an ecological standpoint,” she said.

At farmers’ markets, “everything is more likely to be pre-bagged,” she said, and market-style CSA pick-ups that are especially popular on the East Coast are increasingly shifting to handing out pre-bagged or boxed shares. Some of these changes, Fraver noted, are being made to ease eaters’ concerns at a time when everyone is scared and reliable information on the virus is not always easy to find.

person carrying a plastic bag full of produce

“It’s not just what is safe, it’s also what is perceived as safe,” she said. A good example is that while strict hand washing protocols can be more effective than wearing gloves (especially if gloves are not being utilized properly), farmers wearing gloves at markets send a visual signal to shoppers about preventative measures.

Fraver also noted that a lot of the increase in packaging is not about food or containers being contaminated with the virus, it’s about getting people out of markets and CSA pick-ups faster, since transmission is more likely to occur when individuals congregate.

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Finding Creative Solutions

Farmer Michael Protas of One Acre Farm in Dickerson, Maryland, was worried about that issue at his four CSA pick-up sites, which in past years have been executed market-style, with members bringing their own produce bags and totes to walk down a line while grabbing their food. “On Capitol Hill, we had 40 families that would come into a smallish garage … and that’s not gonna fly at the moment,” he said.

Protas had always provided compostable BioBags for members who forgot their reusables, but switching to a pre-packaged system meant a major increase in the number of bags he’d need. “We’re gonna be flying through these things,” he said. He knew that would be cost prohibitive and that other small farms in the region were likely facing the same dilemma.

Instead of switching to much cheaper plastic bags, he proposed organizing a bulk purchase with other farmers in the Mid-Atlantic. Local nonprofit Future Harvest helped organize the endeavor, and 13 farms signed on; Protas placed an order for 27 cases of produce bags and 13 cases of T-shirt bags for the farms to use throughout the coming season.

More markets and farmers will figure out creative solutions as they gain confidence about safety and are able to calibrate to new systems. “Things are changing so dramatically and fast,” Frost said.

At Rough Draft Farmstead, he sees space in the future to place bulk orders for boxes or paper bags or to reconsider reusable cloth bags. “We hope as the season goes on and we learn more about how the virus is transmitted, we can make decisions that keep us safe and the customers safe,” he said.

It’s the kind of push-and-pull decision making that nutritionist Cannon said is necessary right now. While she’s alarmed (but not surprised) by industry efforts to reverse bag bans, for most individuals producing, shopping for, and eating food, cutting back on single-use packaging waste just might not be possible for a while.

That doesn’t mean Americans are putting their concerns about the environment aside. In fact, Kearney, a consulting firm, released the results of a new consumer survey on Earth Day. Nearly half of the respondents said the pandemic had made them more concerned about the environment. Fifty-nine percent said they are likely to use reusable shopping bags in the future; the biggest plans for future behavioral shifts that respondents reported were to decline plastic utensils and buy food in bulk.

For now, Cannon is focusing on other aspects of sustainable living. “I was crazy about food waste before, but it’s next-level now. If something is going to go bad, it goes in the freezer, or I’m repurposing it and we’re eating it. We’re shopping less. We’re working from home and not getting food on the go; we’re not driving,” she said. “I will be able to go back to bulk buying [at some point], I’m confident in that. But I think what this has made me realize is the conversation is about so much more than plastic and how I shop for food.”

While learning to bake her own bread, signing up for a CSA to support local agriculture, and changing her three-month-old’s cloth diapers, Cannon is thinking about self-sufficiency. “I hope that at the end of this, people are more mindful and are more open to having conversations about what it means to be sustainable,” she said. “Right now, everything is very stressful, and things are going to come in plastic.”

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Thank you for this important piece, Lisa!
  2. I have seen this very thing happening in my normally environmentally-aware neighborhood in LA. It hurts to watch. Thank you for reporting this - now we know it is nationwide.
  3. Yes, not to mention the surging quantity of single-use facial masks consumed daily! The whole world is overwhelmed by the pandemic! But it's understandable in face of imminent health risks, you have put aside the more chronic environment thing, for the time being!

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