Plastic bags – which had been subject to bans in certain cities, states and stores because of their environmental impact – are seeing a sudden resurgence during the coronavirus pandemic.
Fearing the spread of the virus on reusable bags, lawmakers throughout the country have taken steps in recent weeks to usher plastic bags back into stores and ban reusable bags, at least temporarily.
In recent years, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont have taken steps to ban single-use plastic bags in one form or another. Many local municipalities also have implemented bans or restrictions.
But lawmakers are reconsidering those bans.
Maine Gov. Janet Mills has delayed the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags from going into effect until Jan. 15, 2021. It had been set to take effect on Earth Day, April 22.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu has directed all retailers to use single-use bags and prevented them from using reusable bags for now.
Oregon also has suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on their bans.
In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker iordered 139 municipalities that had placed restrictions on single-use bags to overturn those laws, according to multiple reports.
“From now on, reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans will be lifted,” Baker said, according to WBUR.
In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health’s health officer issued an order preventing businesses from “permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs or other reusable items from home.”
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“People are scared for their lives, their livelihood, the economy, feeding their loved ones, so the environment is taking a back seat,” Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner & Bar in Seattle, told the Associated Press.
The plastics industry is pressuring the federal government to step in, lobbying the Trump administration to overturn bans on single-use plastics and arguing that reusable bags are vectors for viruses.
“We are asking that the Department of Health and Human Services investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” Plastics Industry Association CEO Tony Radoszewski wrote to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a letter dated March 18 and provided to USA TODAY. “We ask that the department 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.”
Environmental watchdogs are blasting the plastics industry for trying to take advantage of this crisis, saying industry-funded research on the safety of plastic bags cannot be trusted.
Plastic bags, which are made from petrochemicals, don’t biodegrade, are rarely recycled and can prove deadly to wildlife.
“For years, the plastics industry has funded and promoted research to try to discredit the growing movement to end single-use plastic pollution,” Greenpeace said in a blog post. “And when COVID-19 began to spread, they saw a chance to strike and activate their network of pro-plastic surrogates. Now more than ever, we need independent guidance from medical professionals to inform our decisions around hygiene and shopping. People’s safety should come before profits.”
Greenpeace cited studies suggesting that “plastics are among the surfaces that human coronaviruses may survive on for the longest.”
But politicians are concerned that reusable bags could bring in the coronavirus from home, while brand-new plastic bags may be less likely to carry the virus.
Meanwhile, retailers are taking action as well. Some stores such as Trader Joe’s and Target are letting customers use their own bags if they sack their groceries themselves, while others are banning them.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.