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How the plastic industry is exploiting anxiety about COVID-19

by Ivy Schlegel

March 26, 2020

The plastic industry is using COVID-19 to exploit people’s fears around sanitation and hygiene to interfere with legislation banning or regulating the use of single-use plastic bags.

Shopping cart with plastic-bagged items

It’s been an intense couple of weeks with numbers of COVID-19 cases increasing, but it has also been hopeful to see people join together to protect humanity through social distancing and mutual aid. Unfortunately, the plastic industry is opportunistically using this public health crisis to exploit people’s fears around sanitation and hygiene to interfere with legislation banning or regulating the use of single-use plastic—most notably plastic bags.

Showing their brazen opportunism, the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS), which has long advocated against plastic bans nationwide, has sent a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services urging them to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” despite the recent research showing that COVID-19 can live on plastic surfaces longer than others. The letter relies mostly on the same industry-funded research that has been touted by think tanks and plastic surrogates nationwide.

For years, the plastics industry has funded and promoted research to try to discredit the growing movement to end single-use plastic pollution. 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.

During this time of high anxiety and stress, the spread of misinformation by these petrochemical-funded groups, like the Manhattan Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is not just opportunistic, but irresponsible and dangerous.

Plastic does not inherently make something clean and safe, and we should not confuse corporate public relations with science-based medical research. Two recent studies have concluded that plastics are among the surfaces that human coronaviruses may survive on for the longest, of several surfaces. After these studies were publicized, several media outlets began portraying researcher ‘warnings’ about the potential for reusable grocery bags to transmit the new coronavirus and COVID-19, despite the fact that reusable grocery bags were not among the surfaces examined.

These narratives falsely conflate older studies on bacteria on reusable bags with new studies or concerns about coronavirus to “prove” that plastic bags are the safest way to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. Not only is this inaccurate, but it is a harmful deflection from the recent studies demonstrating that the virus will persist on plastic longer than almost any material examined, which is an important piece of information for people trying to safely navigate the grocery store during a time of crisis.

Many of the think tanks circulating this propaganda have a long, documented history of deploying similar PR tactics for fossil fuel industry clients. The Manhattan Institute, which has been front and center advocating for continued use of throwaway plastic grocery bags in recent weeks, has for decades worked as a front group to dismiss climate science and battle against environmental policies.

We don’t yet have all of the answers on COVID-19 to ensure both customer and worker safety, but those decisions should not be made based on disinformation and talking points from the plastic industry.

During this pandemic, we encourage you to follow the advice of health experts and take the measures you need to keep you, your family and employees healthy and safe.

To read the Greenpeace USA research brief, please click here.

Ivy Schlegel

By Ivy Schlegel

Ivy Schlegel is a senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA plastics team, focusing on strategic corporate research, the petrochemical and plastic value chains, and health and climate impacts of plastic production. Prior to joining the plastics team, Ivy worked on Greenpeace USA's forest work focusing on Indonesian palm oil and other forest-based commodities. Ivy has worked with Greenpeace USA since 2009.

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