Kaufman “Plastics Had Been Falling Out of Favor. Then Came the Virus”

According to a new report from Leslie Kaufman of Bloomberg, the coronavirus pandemic has reminded many of the positive traits of plastics in the medical field.

In January, Joe Biden said he “100 percent” agrees with a plastic bag ban.

Voter at town hall:

When I go back to Kenya, we don’t even use plastic bags or plastic papers. It’s not allowed, because we are trying to clean the ocean. And I think here in America, we are not trying to do that, to support the environment. And so, what’s your view? I mean, what’s your focus? Because in Kenya, we are trying to clean the environment. No plastic bags, you go with your own bags.

Biden: 

Well I agree with you 100 percent. We should not be allowing plastic. And what we should do is phasing it out.

Bloomberg reports 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 January 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 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.