Editorial: The coronavirus brought back plastic bag madness. Let’s make sure it’s temporary

Gov. Gavin Newsom temporarily suspended California's ban on single-use plastic bags, such as the one shown here.
(Frederic J. Brown / AFP/Getty Images)
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Among the many bad things to come out of the coronavirus pandemic is the resurgence of single-use plastic.

In early March, weeks before California adopted the nation’s first stay-at-home orders and when toilet paper could still be found in abundance on store shelves, Starbucks stopped accepting customer’s refillable cups for fear that they might expose baristas to infection. Dunkin’ Donuts followed suit.

Then grocery stores told people to keep their potentially germy reusable bags to themselves and began foisting new plastic and paper bags on shoppers. San Francisco, home of the state’s first plastic bag ban, was one of six Bay Area counties to forbid shoppers from bringing reusable bags into stores.


And last week — right on the heels of Earth Day — Gov. Gavin Newsom suspended California’s pioneering ban on single-use plastic bags for 60 days, allowing stores in cities that didn’t have their own ban before 2015 to forgo charging a 10-cent fee for paper or reusable plastic sacks, and to fall back on the flimsy single-use plastic ones if necessary. Pending plastic bag bans in other parts of the country have been put on hold.

It’s understandable that fears about a spreading pathogen that we still don’t understand well has led to emergency measures such as these. Who knows how this virus is getting around? Grocery store workers, who are at high risk for exposure because of their interaction with customers, ought to be protected as much as possible. But we hope that this current health crisis isn’t an excuse to abandon years of hard-won progress toward reducing our reliance on disposable plastic packaging.

Of course, the plastic industry would love for crusading California to relinquish its position as the nation’s leader on innovative waste reduction, especially when a comprehensive proposal to diminish the use of plastic packaging may be on a future state ballot. (Proponents have launched a digital signature-gathering effort to complete their campaign for the November ballot, which was derailed by the pandemic).

What’s particularly reprehensible is how the plastic industry is taking advantage of the national crisis to renew its campaign against reusable grocery bags, warning that they’re dangerous coronavirus vectors and urging cities and states to embrace single-use plastic. This nakedly self-serving ploy would be laughable if it weren’t so misleading. The industry’s trade association even went so far as to urge Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to declare local and state bans on single-use plastic to be a health threat. (Azar, it seems, has not heeded the request.)

The coronavirus vector argument is just a new twist on the old industry canard, trotted out repeatedly during the debate over California’s statewide ban on disposable plastic bags, that reusable bags are biological hazards. An industry-funded study in 2011 took samples from 84 reusuable bags used by shoppers and found that half had traces of E. coli and other bacteria. But reusable bags pose no more risk than anything that comes into contact with groceries and isn’t properly washed, including the hands of shoppers.

Let’s not forget why California and other states and nations have adopted bans on single-use plastic bags and other disposable plastic. Of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced, almost none of it has been recycled. And too much of it has ended up in the environment, including the ocean and the food chain. We are literally eating and drinking plastic residue. Single-use plastic bags were singled out first because they are ubiquitous — about 100 billion are used in the U.S. every year — and difficult to recycle. They’re also expensive to clean up, an effort that cost California taxpayers an estimated $428 million annually before the ban went into effect.


In addition, they are easy to avoid, and still are even now. You don’t have to use a disposable plastic bag to stay safe. Use paper bags when available or simply carry unbagged groceries in your shopping cart to the car (which most of us in Southern California use to do the shopping).

Like the stay-at-home orders, the revival of disposable bags must be a temporary measure that is lifted as soon as possible. There’s too much at stake. How much? Check out the new documentary, “The Story of Plastic,” for a graphic reminder.