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While the world is rightly preoccupied with tackling COVID-19, oil companies are pushing to produce more single-use plastic than ever before. So what do we need to know about plastic in the age of COVID-19?

During these stressful times, we must listen to science not industry lobbyists. The oil and plastics industry wants you to think that you and your family are safer when your food, drinks and other products are wrapped in plastic. But health experts around the world agree that reusables can be used safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly 130 scientists, academics, and doctors from 19 countries signed onto a statement today reassuring retailers and consumers that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene. The experts — along with Greenpeace USA and UPSTREAM, both members of the Break Free From Plastic movement — note that household disinfectants have been proven effective at disinfecting hard surfaces, such as reusable cups and containers.

Plastic is indispensable in healthcare settings, and there are many reasons why plastic is the material of choice for personal protective equipment (PPE) used to protect essential workers from COVID-19. But there’s a big difference between PPE and packaging for food and other goods. Even so, the oil and plastics industry have been peddling myths in the media and to politicians in an attempt to make single-use plastic acceptable again.

So, here’s what you need to know about plastic packaging when it comes to COVID-19.

There’s nothing particularly sanitary about plastic packaging

Unless you are talking about the medical-grade stuff, there is nothing intrinsically sanitary about plastic. Pathogenic bacteria and viruses will all lurk there just as happily as anywhere else. They can sit on the product inside the plastic, they can sit on the plastic itself. There is nothing magical about this material.

In fact, a study from the New England Medical Journal indicates that COVID-19 can survive on plastic surfaces for two to three days, and on cardboard for 24 hours.

The bottom line is, and hundreds of health experts agree, whether you buy your fruit and vegetables and other foods loose, or wrapped in plastic, you should always wash thoroughly before consumption.

You’re very unlikely to catch COVID-19 from food or packaging

COVID-19 is most commonly passed from person-to-person contact, and as the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA tells us, it’s very unlikely that you can catch COVID-19 from food and its packaging. 

Grocers and supermarkets have to follow strict hygiene rules when handling produce, so washing it in running water and/or cooking it thoroughly is enough to make it safe. 

Just before lockdowns began around the world, many cafes and coffee house chains started refusing to accept reusable cups as a way to protect their staff. But, as mentioned earlier, health experts around the world endorsed a statement today that states that if you wash your reusable cups with soap and hot water, or ideally in a dishwasher if you have one, this is enough to destroy any trace of the virus and keep you and your barista safe. You can also ask for your coffee to be made in their own metal or ceramic cups and then pour it into your reusable cup for contactless coffee.

The same goes for fabric grocery bags. Across the United States, a number of states banned reusable grocery bags in response to the pandemic. But a quick hot wash will remove viruses and pathogenic bacteria. 

So where is the misinformation coming from? 

Oil companies and the plastic industry are exploiting the crisis

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, petrochemical companies are connected to efforts to use the pandemic to their advantage, whipping up fear to stem the tide of protest against plastic products

As the world strives to wean itself off fossil fuels, some of the biggest oil companies in the world – Shell, BP, Saudi Aramco, and Exxon – are investing billions into plastics as the key to their future. 

Now the plastics and petrochemicals industry are trying to exploit the world’s COVID-19 response by casting their own services as “essential,” lobbying governments for massive bailouts and weaker environmental regulations.

A new research paper by Greenpeace USA has found links between the people supplying and fronting misleading articles on plastics and plastic manufacturers or oil companies.

When the European plastics industry called on the European Commission to lift an EU-wide ban on some single-use plastic items on the grounds of “public safety,” the commission’s Vice President responded, “I really did not appreciate people writing to me and using the need for personal protective equipment as a reason not to have a ban on single-use plastics – there’s really no relationship.”

Plastic is still disastrous for the environment and low-income communities

In the past few years, we’ve seen people all over the world turn away from single-use plastic in droves with bans on plastic bags, straws, cutlery and more. 

But sadly, plastic pollution is still a crisis with massive impacts globally, especially in low-income communities and communities of colour. The entire lifecycle of plastic is dangerous — from the extraction of the oil used to make it, to its disposal. 

In addition to the billions of tonnes of plastics entering the sea every year, the production of plastics and, in many places, the burning of it, are fuelling climate change. Throughout its lifecycle, it’s estimated that by 2050 plastic production from oil could be responsible for up to 12% of the Earth’s remaining total carbon budget (the amount of emissions our climate can reasonably take). That’s the equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants – showing that plastic is far from being clean and sanitary for the planet.

The problem isn’t going away: a study by the NGO Tearfund released this year shows four global drinks giants in six developing countries could fill 83 football pitches a day with their plastic waste

And in countries like the UK, much of the plastic waste created is exported and then ends up in open dumpsites in countries like Malaysia. Local people have to pay the price of the health impacts that follow: burning plastic creates respiratory problems and headaches.

In the current crisis, we should be making decisions based on the advice of medical professionals – not lobbyists for the fossil fuel and plastic industries, who have a history of doing more harm than good.

Nina Schrank is a Plastics Campaigner at Greenpeace UK