Commentary / World

Will the comeback of plastic bags outlast the COVID-19 pandemic?

Reusable products are eyed with suspicion now, but sustainability still has a bright future

by Adam Minter

Bloomberg

After decades of bitter fights, environmentalists seemed to be winning the war against single-use plastics in recent years, with cities around the world banning or taxing them. Then the new coronavirus arrived, raising fears that reusable goods might lead to infections. The impact has been swift. From Maine to Hawaii, bans on plastic bags have been suspended or postponed. In San Francisco, reusable shopping bags — once totems of the city’s vibrant commitment to sustainability — have simply been outlawed.

These reversals have sparked deep concern among activists. Some fear the bans will never be reinstated; others that reusable products may be permanently tainted as “unsafe.” The good news is that activists aren’t the only ones demanding more sustainable packaging these days. So are consumers — and some of the world’s biggest corporations are paying attention.

These shifting perceptions haven’t gone unnoticed by consumer brands. Over the past decade, some of the biggest have adopted ambitious sustainability agendas. In 2017, Apple Inc. rolled out an aggressive strategy to embrace sustainable paper and cardboard, which resulted in a 30 percent reduction in plastic use in iPhone 7 packaging. The next year, nearly 300 global organizations, including companies such as Nestle, Mondelez International and Colgate-Palmolive pledged to eliminate unnecessary plastic packaging entirely.

Some of those commitments may not amount to much. But the broader trend is unmistakable. For example, last May, 5,000 U.S. households gained access to a zero-waste e-commerce site called Loop. It offers brand-name products packaged in custom-designed glass and metal containers, which the company will deliver to your doorstep in reusable tote bags. Once you’re done with them, Loop will collect all the packaging for washing and refilling. Tom Szaky, the chief executive officer of TerraCycle, the company behind the site, told me that the experience isn’t all that different from throwing stuff out; it asks almost nothing of the consumer.

Loop isn’t making much money to start. But its animating idea — that reuse should be as easy as throwing something away — is powerful enough that some very big consumer goods companies are now designing packaging specifically for the site. Want Clorox wipes delivered in a reusable metal container? Loop has them. Want the same experience with Haagen-Dazs ice cream or Pantene shampoo? Loop has those too, along with products from 400 other brands. It also has a waiting list of would-be shoppers that’s about “100,000 long,” Szaky says.

Later this year, the company will start offering pick-up-and-return services at retail outlets around the world. “Manufacturers are promising recyclability and reusability,” Szaky told me during a Zoom session, “and we’re the easiest way to do it.”

Loop may or may not be successful in the long term. But the fact is, consumers everywhere are expressing a clear preference for sustainability — and brands are increasingly responsive. Whatever happens with bans on plastic bags, it’s highly likely that this dynamic will ensure that single-use plastics continue to fade from the marketplace. The coronavirus, for all of its challenges, won’t change that hopeful trend.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” and the forthcoming “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”

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