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In a time when we are all scared, frustrated and just generally upended by COVID-19, it may seem trivial to talk about plastic waste. After all, we’re in a crisis and we need to do whatever it takes to keep us safe. We totally agree, and that’s why we argue that it’s critical to talk about plastic waste right now.
We now know that single-use disposables do not keep us safer than reusable products. More than 115 health experts from around the world, including virologists, epidemiologists, emergency room physicians and specialists in packaging and public health, recently signed a statement addressing the safety of reusable bags and containers during the pandemic. They agree that with basic safety precautions in place, reusable systems are no more risky than disposables.
As we learn more about the novel coronavirus, it makes sense to reassess our approach to public policy and how we’re living during the pandemic. For the past three months, our cloth grocery bags and reusable coffee thermoses have been languishing in our closets and cupboards due to fears about spreading the coronavirus. We know that the main way the coronavirus spreads is from respiratory droplets or aerosols, not from contact with surfaces. Because of this, legislative actions by state and local governments to protect public health should focus on preventing transmission by respiratory droplets.
Maine has been a leader in its response to COVID-19. Our state’s quick, bold action has led to low death rates and infection rates compared to other New England states and to the country as a whole. At the beginning of this pandemic, the science around COVID-19 transmission was in its infancy. We had to act quickly to try to contain the virus and protect people with little information guiding us. One quick action was to halt the rollout of Maine’s plastic bag ban and put existing bans on hold to allow retailers to provide single-use plastic bags to customers — all in the hopes of creating safer outcomes for everyone.
A recent study demonstrated that the virus actually remains viable on plastic for up to three days, compared with one day on cloth. So using plastic bags instead of reusable bags could, in theory, actually put us at greater risk. In fact, there is no evidence that reusable bags or cups present a greater threat than single-use disposables for the transmission of the coronavirus. Reusable products are designed to be washed, laundered and disinfected, unlike their disposable counterparts. If safety is our goal, single-use plastic products that are difficult to clean and disinfect are not likely to be our best option.
Now that we’ve lived with the coronavirus for several months, it’s time to take stock of our response and see where it can be improved. There is a clear scientific consensus that reusable systems can be utilized safely by employing basic hygiene and creating contact-free options for customers’ personal bags and cups. Grocery stores can continue to make public health the priority and allow customers to bring their own reusable bags if they keep them in their carts and bag their groceries themselves, for example.
Even as we deal with the new normal brought about by the coronavirus, we must continue to address the persistent threat of plastics in our environment. The hard truth is that when we consume more single-use products, they end up in the environment. This has direct effects in Maine, where emerging science is showing microplastics harm lobster larvae. We cannot allow our health crisis to exacerbate our plastic crisis. COVID-19 has also dealt another blow to already struggling municipal recycling programs, making it clear that we can’t simply recycle our way out of this problem.
Unfortunately, it seems like the coronavirus isn’t going anywhere any time soon. How we respond to the virus will have long-term impacts on the state’s economy and environment. As we seek out solutions that keep us safe in these uncertain times, it’s important that we create and evolve policy informed by the best available science rather than our fears.
We’re happy to see that Maine has updated its guidance on reusable bags. Store managers may now allow customers to bring in reusable bags. This change is important, and helps us remember the other things we’ve already agreed are important: protecting Maine’s environment and reducing our use of single-use plastics. We can promote public health and meet our environmental goals. Now it’s time to ensure that we return to reuse at stores, restaurants and businesses across the state.
Julie Lamy is chief friendmaker and chief operating officer at UPSTREAM, a nonprofit organization working in Maine and across the country on innovative solutions to plastic pollution. Brie Berry is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine and a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week. This column reflects their views and expertise and does not speak on behalf of the university.