One of the first casualties of COVID-19 was the reusable coffee mug. When the pandemic first hit Ottawa in early March, some coffee shops stopped allowing customers to bring in their own mugs. Then came the bulk food stores, some of which started disallowing reusable containers. The final blow came with the resurgence of plastic shopping bags, when some food retailers prohibited bring-your-own bags.
It is understandable, in the face of a highly infectious virus, that people are afraid. Now more than ever, applying the precautionary principle to keep people safe seems like the only wise approach.
But Glebe residents pride themselves on being environmentally conscious, and our neighbourhood has been blessed with an array of retailers committed to environmental sustainability and waste reduction. We can’t let the COVID-19 pandemic undo what we have achieved over the past years in reducing single-use plastics.
IS DISPOSABLE PLASTIC
REALLY A SAFER OPTION?
How has plastic suddenly come to be seen as a means of preventing COVID-19 transmission? To answer this, let’s take a look at the broader international political economy behind the resurgence of this discourse.
Since 2010, $203 billion has been invested in 343 new or expanded petrochemical facilities and plastics plants in the U.S. This boom in plastic production is fueled by cheap oil and gas released by fracking. The industry is banking on an expanded market for plastics to compensate for the expected reduced demand for petroleum as the world transitions to renewable energy sources. However, its projections are threatened by the increasing number of jurisdictions implementing plastic bans.
On March 18, the Plastics Industry Association appealed to the U.S. government to make a national pronouncement against reusable grocery bags, claiming they can carry and transmit COVID-19 for longer. They cited three studies to support their position, all of them red herrings that were not specific to COVID-19. The first two related to potential bacterial – not viral – contamination of reusable cloth bags, while the third reported on a single incidence of Novovirus contamination through an unwashed reusable bag. All three studies recommended regular washing of reusable shopping bags to eliminate the possibility of contamination, not that they be replaced with single-use plastic.
But what does the science actually say about how long COVID-19 can persist on different surfaces? In work published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tested for two strains of COVID-19. They found the virus was still viable up to three days after they applied it to plastic and stainless steel and up to one day on cardboard. The viability of the virus on cloth was not assessed, although experts believe that absorbent, natural fibers in cardboard appear to cause the virus to dry up more quickly than it does on hard surfaces and that paper and fabric would likely produce a similar effect. (New York Times, April 17, 2020: nytimes.com/2020/04/17/well/ live/coronavirus-contagion-spread-clothes-shoes-hair-newspaper-packages-mail-infectious.html)
A 2005 study of the virus that causes SARS, another form of coronavirus, tested viral samples on paper and on cotton. Even in high concentrations, the virus became inactive within 24 hours on both of these surfaces.
There is therefore no evidence that reusable shopping bags are dangerous or more liable to transmit COVID-19 than plastic bags, which can be contaminated during transportation, manufacture or handling. Neither the Public Health Agency of Canada nor the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises against reusable shopping bags.
SKIP THE PLASTIC;
CHOOSE CLOTH OR PAPER BAGS
So what is the politically discerning, zero-waste supporting, COVID-conscious Glebe shopper to do?
First, wash all your reusable bags with hot water and detergent, and remember to do so regularly. Some Glebe grocery stores will allow you to bring your own bags, so keep them on your person while you shop, and pack items yourself at the checkout to avoid having the cashier touch the bags. When you get home, either wash your bags again or do not use them for a week (to err on the side of much caution), by which time any viral matter should be gone. If reusable bags are not permitted by the store, paper bags would be a good second choice. Also, be on the lookout for new research on this topic, as it is evolving day by day.
Nobody knows how long we will be deploying these extraordinary measures to contain the virus. And when COVID-19 is vanquished, there may well be another pandemic around the corner. If we allow the plastics industry effort to promote single-use plastics to go unchallenged, we could well find that these “temporary” measures become entrenched as the “old normal.” Let’s do our bit to not let this happen.
If you are interested in joining forces with fellow Glebe residents working towards zero waste in our community and in the city of Ottawa, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kate Reekie is chair of the Zero Waste Committee, a subcommittee of the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association.