Written by: Natalia Brown

We’ve all become extra conscious of our surroundings amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, frequently questioning behaviors we never second-guessed before.

Amidst the unprecedented public health risks posed by the novel coronavirus; public administrators, elected officials, businesses, and consumers are taking part in rapid change. We find ourselves clinging to the media for updates on the federal relief programs and coordination of local and state-level responses; but are flooded with alarming projections, unproductive partisan debate, and stories of failures to distribute the needed personal protective equipment or support the exacerbated needs of marginalized communities.

We’ve been somewhat forced into harnessing the power of technology to continue fulfilling our responsibilities and restraining from new purchases by making the most of all we already own. International adherence to strict social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders has helped to “flatten the curve, “reducing the spread of the coronavirus, while also reducing atmospheric pollution.

The most significant reduction in carbon emissions and air pollution has been linked to the economic slowdown, specifically reduced industrial activity and energy production as noted by LSA’s Chris Poulsen. For example, NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) pollution monitoring satellites have detected significant decreases in nitrogen dioxide (NO2) over China. 

This devastation of the modern economy is not a desirable or reasonable means for reducing pollution. However, it’s worth acknowledging that recovery from this temporary slowdown can be harnessed as a turning point to make society more resilient moving forward. It is becoming clearer that the shared goals of economic productivity, public health, and environmental protection may be simultaneously achieved through more thoughtful and sustainable development.

This is a real-world example of how collective action and small changes can reduce our environmental impact and restore environmental health. Climate risk is increasingly being acknowledged and prioritized by private enterprises, individuals, and elected officials. This moment in history has the potential to shed light and direct investments to renewable energy infrastructure and a more circular economy too!

Nonetheless, global oil producers have driven supply to an excess which, coupled with collapsed demand due to COVID-19, drove the price of oil below zero for the first time in history. Global oil consumption has been in free-fall as more countries introduce unprecedented measures to fight the coronavirus outbreak. Having failed to profit from its over-production of natural gas, the oil industry has shifted its efforts to ethane cracking: converting natural gas into plastics. Ethane cracker plants cause immediate health and environmental detriment to nearby communities, while exacerbating plastic pollution impacts around the globe. 

The Debris Free Oceans team has identified Big Oil’s direct efforts to ramp up demand for non-essential single-use plastics, especially plastic bags, by taking advantage of public fear and uncertainty. Specifically, the Plastics Industry Association is currently lobbying to quash plastic bag bans, even going so far as requesting that the United States Department of Health and Human Services publicly declare that banning single-use plastics during a pandemic is a health threat [their letter is linked here].

The spread of misinformation has understandably led many of us to question whether it’s okay to continue using reusable bags for our occasional, ultra-cautious shopping trips.

In a study cited by the Plastics Industry Association in their letter to the US DHHS, researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that reusable bags can contain bacteria, and users don’t wash reusable bags very often. The study was funded, however, by the American Chemistry Council, which represents major plastics and chemicals manufacturers. Most notably, the study recommends that shoppers simply wash their reusable bags, not replace them.

There is no evidence that single-use plastics are safer than reusable items, and it’s important for all of us to recognize that single-use plastics have a number of opportunities to become contaminated during their manufacture, distribution, inventory stocking, and use. 

They are exposed to open air and surfaces like any other item you may be concerned about cross-contamination from. As such, single-use plastics could only be proven more sanitary if packaged individually in sterile conditions and handed to the customer in intact sterile packaging—much like you would imagine a syringe is packaged before use to draw blood.

We know these conditions aren’t practically met in the real world; so here’s a breakdown of our options based on currently available scientific evidence. 

The New England Journal of Medicine, the world’s leading medical journal for over 200 years, published data in mid-March of this year that shows SARS-CoV-2 is more stable, and has a longer lifetime, on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard. Viable SARS-CoV-2 was detected up to 72 hours after application on plastic, while none was measured on cardboard after 24 hours.

There is no evidence presented here to back the claim that “single-use plastics are often the safest choice” as has been pushed upon the US DHHS. In fact, the findings suggest that cardboard is a safer single-use material than plastic with respect to COVID-19 viability.  

The study is authored by 13 scientists including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (National Institutes of Health) (van Doremalen et al., 2020).

Another scientific study, published on April 2, 2020, in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Lancet Microbe, on the stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions, showed that the virus is more stable on plastic than on printing or tissue paper, wood, cloth, glass, or banknotes. SARS-CoV-2 remained detectable on plastic for 4 days, while on paper it was not detected after 30 minutes, on wood or cloth after 1 day, and on banknotes after 2 days (Chin et al., 2020). 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), COVID-19 is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person. However, spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects is possible. Guidelines issued by the CDC do not make a distinction between the items this may include; therefore, we may assume that they apply to single-use or reusable items equally. 

Ultimately, single-use items are not sterile and bound to be exposed to microbes before reaching their end users. Therefore; handling a single-use plastic bag, utensil, container, or cup likely poses an equal risk of infection as any reusable item.

Nonetheless, delays and suspensions of plastic bag bans have already taken hold in Maine, Massachusetts, and a growing number of other states. In New Hampshire, the governor actually issued an emergency health order requiring stores to use single-use paper or plastic shopping bags

We, at Debris Free Oceans, acknowledge that the nature of COVID-19 poses unusual risks, as the virus may be contracted and transmitted asymptomatically, and it is understandable that reusable items such as shopping bags may be an object of concern. We urge you to make that decision individually based on your circumstances and acknowledge that banning reusable items is an unsupported attempt that will not be a long-term solution to cross-contamination.

Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, has called the plastics industry’s recent actions “shameless” and exploitative. We agree with her statement that it is understandable to use single-use materials occasionally, when necessary or beyond our control, but “in terms of overturning or delaying laws, [Enck sees] no independent data that supports that move.”

We are all struggling in some way to navigate this new normal. Conscious habits, these among others, may bring about a sense of normalcy and fulfillment amidst all the present uncertainty. 

First and foremost, we strongly suggest that you wash all materials that may pose risks for cross contamination: reusables (bottles, bags, wash cloths) as well as commonly touched surfaces (steering wheel, door handles, cell phone, credit cards and wallet). If you find yourself under circumstances where you must resort to single-use materials, we suggest that you prioritize non-plastic alternatives in the best interest of your physical well-being and environmental health.

We at Debris Free Oceans stand in solidarity with all those who have likewise made the sacrifices to stay home, stay distanced, and protect our communities. We are privileged with the time and resources to consider reusables when so many of our neighbors, family members, friends, coworkers, and local leaders are charged with the challenges directly posed by this dangerous pathogen. Adhering to the guidance of public health professionals is the least we can do to support the courage and generosity of the healthcare workers and first responders at the front-lines of this crisis. 


Questions about continuing conscious lifestyle habits during a public health crisis, plastic production, or how we’re transitioning our community programming to remote engagement? Suggestions for future Trash Talk topics? Reach out to me via email: natalia@debrisfreeoceans.org!