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New research shows the plastic industry is exploiting COVID-19 to attack reusable bags

by Perry Wheeler

March 26, 2020

Washington, DC – Greenpeace USA released a research brief today detailing the ways the plastics industry is exploiting people’s fears around COVID-19. The plastics industry and its surrogates have utilized older industry-funded studies to publish op-eds and stories claiming that reusables are somehow more dangerous than other options in grocery stores and elsewhere, despite new research from the National Institutes of Health, CDC, UCLA, and Princeton University showing that COVID-19 can live on plastic surfaces longer than others, for as long as two to three days. This plastics industry PR push has been executed by organizations like the Manhattan Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the American Energy Alliance using research underwritten by companies like Novolex — one of the country’s largest manufacturers of plastic film and packaging — and front groups like the American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the world’s largest fossil fuel and chemical companies.

“At a time when people need factual medical research to inform their decisions around protecting their families, the plastics industry has worked to exploit our fears for profits,” said Greenpeace USA Plastics Research Specialist Ivy Schlegel. “For years, the plastics industry has pushed industry-funded research to try to discredit the movement to end single-use plastic pollution. And when COVID-19 began to spread, they saw it as an opportunity 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.”

The Greenpeace research details the timeline of the misinformation echo chamber, which increased sharply after new studies were released showing that plastic was one of the surfaces upon which viruses could persist the longest. One of the first public voices falsely linking COVID-19 to reusable bags was Robert Kimmel, a Clemson University professor whose 2014 research on grocery bags was underwritten by Novolex. The ACC, which has been documented as interfering with legislative efforts on plastics, has underwritten at least one of the studies referenced, specifically a study authored by Charles Gerba and Ryan Sinclair at University of Arizona and Loma Linda University School of Public Health in 2011. Ryan Sinclair authored an op-ed this week stating that plastic bags protect workers.

Many of the think tanks circulating this propaganda have a long history of deploying the same 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 to dismiss climate science and battle against environmental policies. The group has received $1.39 million from ExxonMobil from 1997-2018 and is one of the few remaining anti-climate organizations funded by Exxon.

The American Energy Alliance, which reprinted the Manhattan Institute piece in its newsletter, is the political advocacy affiliate of the nonprofit Institute for Energy Research, which was initially created by Charles Koch and former Enron executive Robert Bradley. Both of these organizations have received fossil fuel industry money, as detailed in the brief. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has argued against bag bans in recent weeks using industry-funded research, has been a central player in the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long attack on the public’s understanding of climate science, including as a litigant against climate scientists themselves. The group has received money from ExxonMobil, Charles Koch, and additional other fossil fuel and petrochemical companies through 2019, as shown in the brief.

“This is straight out of the fossil fuel industry’s climate denier playbook,” said Schlegel. “These extensive networks are masterful at executing PR campaigns to influence state and federal policy, particularly in moments of fear and crisis as they are doing now. We don’t yet have all of the answers on COVID-19 to ensure both customer and worker safety, but those decisions should be based on the best available science and not plastic industry talking points.”

At the federal level, 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 PLASTICS letter cites the same industry-funded research that has been touted by think tanks and plastic surrogates nationwide.

To read the Greenpeace USA research brief, please click here: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/research/how-the-plastic-industry-exploited-anxiety-about-covid-19

Greenpeace released a statement condemning this industry spin earlier this week, which you can find here: https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/news/industry-should-not-exploit-covid-19-to-push-more-plastic-pollution/

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Contact: Perry Wheeler, Greenpeace USA Senior Communications Specialist, P: 301-675-8766

Perry Wheeler

By Perry Wheeler

Perry Wheeler is a senior communications specialist at Greenpeace USA.

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