On April 2nd, 2020, my mother was strolling through her local supermarket picking out the ingredients needed to make her specialty dish, eggplant Parmesan. As she began putting the Parmesan cheese into her reusable bag, she heard a scream coming from across the aisle. With a swift movement, she turned her head and saw one of the employees looking at her disapprovingly. As the person approached her, she asked, “May I ask what the issue is?”
“You cannot use that reusable bag in this store! It is against the new policy!” said the employee.
“What is wrong with using my reusable bag?”
“All I know is that this is the new policy. You can use the disposable plastic bags that we provide at the register.”
Since the COVID-19 infection broke out in the United States in December of 2019, more shoppers have used disposable plastic bags in grocery stores.
Plastic is a major contributor to environmental destruction. Research from the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows that 99% of plastic is formulated from petrochemicals, or chemicals obtained from natural gas and petroleum. Moreover, the need for these raw materials to create plastics accounts for approximately 12% of the world’s oil demands. Controlling the disposal of plastics through allegedly “safe” means, is more detrimental to our health and the environment. The ostensibly “safe” way of getting rid of plastic is by torching plastic waste, which, in turn, releases air pollutants and carbon into the air. This can result in the unleashing of “cancer-causing dioxins” and “respiratory irritants”. Some plastics, such as those containing the toxic carcinogen diethylhexyl phthalate, have been known to have a detrimental effect on human health. According to assessments made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a single plastic grocery bag that has found its way to the ocean can take about 20 years to decay. Likewise, a plastic bottle can take as long as 450 years to decompose. Furthermore, recycling is not a viable solution to the plastic problem, as only about 10% of all recyclables are salvaged.
According to the Surfrider Foundation, the environmentalists’ efforts have resulted in 28 states adopting more than 471 local plastic bag regulations as well as eight states enforcing statewide plastic bag bans to lessen the amount of pollution in our environment. City governments banned disposable plastic bags prior to the virus’s spread, making great strides towards a more environmentally friendly atmosphere. But during the pandemic, disposable plastic bags are making a comeback. People fear that reusable bags are more likely to spread germs despite the lack of evidence according to the New York Times. Therefore, some cities are reversing their single-use plastic bag bans because of the concern of contamination during the pandemic. This reversal of the bag ban has concerned some environmentalists, such as John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director at Greenpeace, a non-governmental environmental organization. Throughout the years, environmentalists have worked diligently to reduce the use of disposable plastics, such as gloves, plastic bottles, straws and disposable bags.
While more people are using disposable bags in grocery stores, there are debates about whether single-use plastics are any safer than reusable bags in preventing the spread of germs. Greenpeace has said that the plastic industry is simply exploiting our anxiety about COVID-19 to generate profit due to civilians’ fears. “I have seen no scientific argument for moving towards plastic bags to prevent exposure to COVID-19,” says Richard Niesenbaum, a sustainability professor at Muhlenberg. “There is no guarantee that plastic bags from a store have not been touched or contaminated. Whether or not this is politically motivated I cannot say. Most bag laws/policies are at the local municipality level. However, at the federal level there has been a large effort to dismantle existing environmental regulation primarily through executive order while the congress and the public including the press are understandably distracted by the current public health situation. There is a possibility that local politicians are applying this approach, but I have no evidence for it.”
“It makes more sense that a consumer brings their own bag, packs their own groceries or items, and carries them out,” says Niesenbaum. “They of course should use gloves when touching the touch screen, cart, or any other product or equipment that may have been touched by others. Once exiting the store, one should remove their gloves and grab their own bags that nobody else has touched. I also recommend cleaning reusable bags upon return to home.”
Some New York residents have already witnessed the detrimental impacts of an increased use of single-use plastics. While strolling through the streets of New York City, Orli Segall, ‘20, has witnessed a handful of disposable masks and gloves being tossed onto the streets and sidewalks. This is appalling to her and she hopes that we will all stop using single-use plastics once the epidemic subsides because, as we all know, plastics harm the environment by damaging our ecosystems and killing wildlife. “Maybe the virus is a wake-up call for people to keep nature/the environment clean,” said Segall. “But because it has been a mess for a long time already, I wouldn’t be surprised if nature falls to the waste side because the world needs to deal with other things first. [It’s] not that I don’t think the environment is important, but that the economy is dealing with a lot so the government has to reimburse workers so who knows how much money will be allotted to keeping nature clean.”
This pandemic has shown how important it is to address our issues of climate change. “We have worked hard to ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19 infection, but when we return to business as usual our carbon release and rising temperature curves will be anything but flattened,” says Niesenbaum. “This will cause many more illnesses and deaths than we will see in the current crisis particularly for the global poor.”
“Environmental health and human health are tightly linked,” said Niesenbaum. “If we don’t fix our environmental problems such as climate change, air and water pollution, plastics pollution and our garbage crisis in general, the risk of future public health crises will only increase.”