NEW YORK – It took one week after the first U.S. case of COVID-19 with no overseas connection for Starbucks Corp. to temporarily ban customers from bringing in reusable coffee mugs.
Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, was disappointed. Public health comes first, of course, but as the founder of the grassroots Beyond Plastics project, Enck had her doubts that returning to disposable cups would make anyone safer. Currency, for instance, is a notorious germ-carrier. “Will Starbucks now stop accepting cash?” she says.
These are nervous times for activists working to wean the world off plastics. Until the novel coronavirus started its spread across the globe, 2020 appeared to be a year when meaningful plastic-use restrictions would finally take hold. A growing list of consumer companies—including Coca-Cola Co., which produces about 117 billion plastic bottles each year—had set targets to reduce their reliance on plastic packaging. France prohibited single-use plastic plates, cups and cutlery starting Jan. 1, and England will enact restrictions on plastic straws and stirrers starting in April. On March 1, New York joined a number of other cities around the world in banning the distribution of plastic shopping bags by retailers.
The virus plays right into the industry’s strong suits: disposability and hygiene. A new report released by BloombergNEF last week found that, in the short run at least, the fears of plastics opponents might be valid. “Concerns around food hygiene due to Covid-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity, undoing some of the early progress made by companies,” the report stated. Researchers found the greatest spikes in demand for face masks and the thin film used in plastic wraps.
Plastics lobbying groups such as Plastics Industry Association and the American Chemistry Council (ACC) have long defended their products by noting that plastic has played a revolutionary role in medical care. Single-use surgical gloves, syringes, insulin pens, IV tubes and catheters, for example, have both reduced the risk of patient infection and helped streamline operations by lifting the burden of sterilization.
As consumer taste started to shift against the $40 billion plastics industry, manufacturers added an additional argument to their arsenal: that their products are actually a boon to overall sustainability, despite being petroleum-based, non-biodegradable and difficult to recycle. Plastic packaging plays a role in reducing food waste by extending the shelf life of fresh produce from days to over a week. Plastic parts in cars also reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency.
Most of these claims are based on a handful of studies, the most significant of which was done for ACC by Franklin Associates in 2018. It looked at the life cycle of products such as water bottles, shrink wrap and retail shopping bags and concluded that if they were made of alternative materials — say glass or aluminum or textiles — they would require five times the amount of energy to manufacture and use more water in the process. When Jack Williams, a senior vice president at Exxon Corp., told a group of investors on March 5 that, “from a sustainability viewpoint, plastic packaging beats alternatives,” he was referring to that study.
Anti-plastic crusaders like Steve Feit, a staff attorney on the climate and energy team at the Center for International Law, say the life cycle analysis is full of flaws.
“It assumes that we are just going to make exactly the same products in the alternative materials” instead of redesigning to suit the new medium — “which is crazy,” Feit says. “And it doesn’t take into account the plastic’s effect after the product has been disposed into landfills.”
While the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has gotten most of the attention, a 2018 study found that micro plastics are also leaching from landfills and sewers and polluting soil and water sources.
But while the sustainability rationalization has been met with skepticism, the health justification is harder to fight. Plastic on its own isn’t a magic bullet: a study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection concluded that the virus behind COVID-19 can survive for nine days on plastic surfaces at room temperature. Yet for many, products that can be thrown away after one use seem to be the safest options.
After Starbucks suspended accepting refillable mugs, Dunkin’ and Tim Horton’s announced similar policies. Despite a warning from the U.S. Surgeon General that they’re not particularly effective, face masks — including a sleek air-filtering model worn by celebrity lifestyle icon Gwyneth Paltrow — have been selling out worldwide. Many pharmacies are also reporting shortages of latex gloves.
Adding to the anti-plastic movement’s concerns, the onset of an oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia triggered a historic sell-off in markets. Rock-bottom petroleum prices mean lots of plastic could be made even more cheaply in the long-term.
While BNEF said that it was too early to know for sure that COVID-19 is affecting plastic demand overall, it did predict that any spike would likely be temporary, and that as a result industry revenues would be flat or even up in the midst of a sharp economic downturn.
“In the long term, we do not expect this increased demand to have a significant impact on either plastic demand or circular economy goals,” the report said, referring to a future in which all items are either reused or recycled.
Nevertheless, the plastics industry is seizing the moment. In late February, Plastics Industry Association head Tony Radoszewski issued a statement: “As new coronavirus cases are confirmed around the globe and the disease poses a growing threat to public health,” it said, the plastics industry is working to ensure that “patients get the care they need and medical professionals are protected as they provide that care.”
The release concluded: “The global plastics industry stands ready to assist authorities and public health advocates in making sure our materials and products are on the frontline of combating the spread of the coronavirus.”