Because of coronavirus, events planned for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day were cancelled, or moved online. At least while lockdown orders last, the pandemic is transforming behavior and environmental impacts—but not across the board. Some industries are cynically exploiting it to push for rollbacks and greater license to pollute.
The plastics industry is a case in point. It’s intertwined with the fossil fuel industry, since petrochemical byproducts of fossil fuel production are the feedstocks for plastics. As demand for fracked gas declines, the two industries have been working to channel overproduction into producing more plastic, and they’re playing the angles to stoke demand.
“The Story of Plastic,” a powerful new film airing this Earth Day, exposes this in exquisite detail. Even if we’ve seen the pictures of plastic “islands” twice the size of Texas swirling in ocean gyres, most of us are unprepared to grasp the true dimensions of the plastic crisis the film documents, which industry tactics will make worse. Nine million metric tons of plastic enter the oceans annually. In many places around the world, fisherman haul in almost as much plastic as fish, and plastic pollution pervades much of the developing world.
Yet the industry makes more single-use plastic than ever, and is working to increase production dramatically, which will increase greenhouse gas emissions and climate damage. It markets cheap single-serving plastic sachets to low income people in the developing world, which now flood the waste stream. To misdirect attention away from the real problem of plastic overproduction, the industry knowingly promotes false recycling solutions that put the onus on consumers rather than the companies producing the plastic avalanche. In the United States, under 10 percent of plastics are recycled. Multi-million dollar PR campaigns keep telling us all we need to do is recycle. But we cannot recycle our way out of this problem.
The pandemic adds another layer of complexity to it. Obviously, we need to stay focused on public health. But meanwhile, we cannot let the pandemic become an excuse for bad environmental policies or industry malfeasance. As Americans were coming to terms with the seriousness of COVID-19, the plastics industry was busy spinning the crisis to their advantage.
On March 18 Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association, wrote a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar equating fighting the pandemic with rolling back bans on single-use plastic. “I am proud to say that the plastics industry is working overtime to produce products and supplies to help in the effort,” he enthused. He went on to claim the “push to eliminate single-use plastic” was misguided, that “study after study after study have shown that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store, and live on surfaces for up to three days,” that plastic bag bans are “tying the hands of shoppers and retailers,” and “single-use plastics are often the safest choice” for fighting COVID-19. He urged HHS to “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.”
This is misleading, self-serving spin. It’s in fact highly disputable whether disposable plastic is any safer than reusable items. The New England Journal of Medicine found COVID-19 was stable on plastic surfaces for up to three days. Theoretically, if no one else touched or coughed on the plastic bag or container or fork that’s offered to you at a store or restaurant, it could be virus-free. But that’s a big “if.” There are environmental impacts from discarding all this plastic right after use, and since the virus lasts longer on plastic than cardboard or other materials, it also poses risks to workers who come in contact with it after you throw it away.
Where’s the public health advantage in that? There’s perfectly reasonable alternative: wash your reusable bags (which kills COVID-19), bring them to the store, and pack them yourself. That eliminates any risk the bag could harbor the virus (which is not zero with disposable plastic bags), and any risk to those who deal with discarded plastic. It also prevents yet more plastic from entering the waste stream and polluting the environment in the name of public health.
But the plastics industry doesn’t want that idea to get traction. When the New England Journal study appeared it launched a concerted media campaign to change the narrative, touting earlier “research” purporting to prove plastics were safer than reusable materials, and to argue we needed more single-use plastics to fight the pandemic. It mostly relied on a 10-year old study that had nothing to do with COVID-19 and which was funded by the chemical industry.
Such tactics shouldn’t work, yet they do. Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts stopped offering reusable cups, and restaurants are using more disposable plastic bags, containers, cups, and cutlery. The Massachusetts Food Association, called for suspending the state’s plastic bag ban and mouthed the industry talk point that “Single-use plastic bags provide the best and most hygienic method of carrying food and other perishable items.”
Like a zoonotic virus, the tactic has jumped to adjacent industries. Citing COVID-19 concerns, Vermont waste haulers are trying to convince the State Legislature to allow them to landfill recyclables and delay final implementation of a new law requiring composting of food scraps. Vermont, New York and other states have even stopped enforcing their bottle bills in the name of COVID-19.
So this historic Earth Day, let’s get one thing straight: the pandemic may have temporarily driven the environmental movement off the streets and onto the internet, but that doesn’t mean polluting industries will get away with spinning it for their own selfish aims at the expense of the environment and public health. Positioning themselves on the wrong side the COVID-19 crisis as well as the climate and environmental crisis isn’t clever marketing; it’s an invitation to a backlash.
Judith Enck is the President of Beyond Plastics, visiting professor at Bennington College and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.