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  • Writer's pictureSarah Anelay - Clear Public Space

Pandemic Plastics: The Plastic Bag Resurrection

The direction of travel seemed set, first, we tackled plastic straws and coffee stirrers, next it was a plastic bag ban. Then the pandemic hit.

As we settle into “Lockdown 2.0” it’s important to think about the environmental impact of Lockdown 1(.0?) so we can approach this one differently, and, more sustainably.

When the first lockdown came about there was much less scientific research and knowledge about the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Therefore, the habits we picked up from the advice which we were given has not all been scientifically proven to be effective.

In the next two pieces, I investigate the resurgence of plastic in our shopping habits in the Covid-19 pandemic. Firstly, let’s look at the plastic bag.

The Issue: The Resurrection of the Plastic Bag

Since the introduction of the 5p plastic bag in 2016, we have seen the number of plastic bags issued by supermarkets plummet. According to Statista Data, in 2016/17 Tesco issued 637.2 million plastic bags, in comparison to 121.74 million in 2018/19. Similar trends can be seen at Asda, Marks and Spencers, and Iceland who have all approximately halved their 2016/17 number of issued plastic bags.

However, 2020 has seemed to stagnate this awesome depreciation. Morrisons issued 118.2 million fewer plastic bags in 2018/19 than in 2017/18. However, in 2019/20, the annual number of plastic bags issued only decreased by 10 million- less than a tenth of the progress they were making the previous year. At the Co-op, the number has actually increased by almost 10 million.

In the UK we have not seen the same bans on bringing your own bags to shops as has been enforced in the US. However, Target, a veritable magnate of American culture, banned the use of reusable bags “out of an abundance of caution”. In fact, eight states banned reusable bags for a time.

Whilst we haven’t seen a ban, the UK Government did decide to waive its 5p plastic bag fee for online supermarkets in March. As more and more of us opted for online shopping, the number of plastic bags issued by supermarkets inevitably grew exponentially. The BBC reported that almost three-quarters of Britons are now doing their grocery shopping online, and 17.2 million UK customers are expected to make the change permanent. A recent Waitrose report stated that the trend is “irreversible”.

The Science: The Red Herring of Hygiene?

The rationale for the resurgence of plastic bags has been hygiene. There is good reason for plastics being used for PPE in medical environments, but there is a big difference between proper medical-grade plastic use and a flimsy plastic bag from Tesco.

In the next post, I will be discussing the rise in plastic food packaging but the concern is the same: Can the Coronavirus be brought into the home by shopping bags, and are single-use plastic bags, therefore, safer than reusable ones?

A 2018 article posted in the Journal of Environmental Health found that reusable bags are indeed likely to carry bacteria and potentially infect others with diseases such as E. Coli and Norovirus.

Some research also shows that the Covid-19 virus can live on plastic for up to three days. Somewhat oddly, this study has been used by some in the plastics industry to promote the use of plastic bags over reusable bags. This study did not compare the lifespan of Covid-19 on other fabrics such as canvas or cloth, yet Greenpeace reported that several media outlets referenced the study to argue that the virus lasts longer on cloth than plastic.

In fact, some experts say that the porous surfaces found on reusable bags with textiles such as cotton are actually less likely to transmit the virus than smooth surfaces such as plastic and the virus can be easily destroyed if a bag is washed with soap and water.

As previously mentioned, the science we have now is vastly better than that which circulated at the beginning of global lockdowns. Speculation on transmission is still rife, but it is extremely overwhelmingly accepted that the Coronavirus is an airborne disease, spreading person to person rather than via surfaces. Even the US Centre for Disease Control stated that “the virus does not spread easily in other ways” (than person to person transmission).

Whilst all the science is definitely still up for debate, and we cannot make any certain statements, it is clear that plastic bags are not the silver bullet for safe shopping.

In light of recent debates, I found the words of one epidemiologist from the University of Arkansas particularly pertinent: “We're going to argue about the nuances of plastic bags, but we refuse to wear masks? That to me is really strange.”

From the economic side, the debate over plastic vs. reusable bags is made less clear by the pausing of the 5p fee for online shopping. However, the cost to the planet for any additional plastic is monumental. Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastics enter our ocean on top of the estimated 150 million metric tons that currently circulate our marine environments.

Whilst companies may pass off a surge in single-use plastic and plastic bags as a momentary hitch caused by Covid-19, the additional plastic bags made and circulated, even for this brief moment, will cause damage that will last centuries.

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