Amidst COVID-19, States Reversing Bans on Single-Use Plastics

Much bemoaned single-use plastics are now coming back into favor. For the past few years, several states and many localities have banned single-use plastics such as bags, straws, and packaging. There has also been a counter response of states preempting localities over bag bans, for which ALEC has model policy. In general, states and localities that generally support anti-business policies have moved to ban single-use plastics, while free market states have fought to keep them in use and in some cases, preempted localities from issuing bans, taxes, or fees.

But with the COVID-19 outbreak, states legislators and governors of all stripes are delaying and reversing single-use plastic bans in order to prevent the spread of the virus.

Maine’s legislature enacted a single-use plastic ban last year that was set to go into effect in April, but early this month voted to delay the ban until next year. New York’s Department of Environmental Quality delayed enforcement of its single-use bag ban until at least May 15. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu ordered grocery stores to only use single-use plastic or paper bags instead of reusable bags.

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The concern is that reusable plastic bags can further spread the COVID-19 virus. While there is not specific evidence of transmission from reusable bags leading to any cases yet, the National Institutes of Health reports that the virus can live on plastic surfaces for two or three days. In addition to viruses, bacteria can linger on reusable plastic bags – and consumers often neglect to clean them. A 2011 study of reusable bags found that only 3% of consumers regularly wash them, 99% percent of bags tested positive for bacteria, and 8% of bags carried E. coli. Amid shutdowns of non-essential businesses, it makes sense to also stop the potential spread of the virus by having people use disposable plastic or paper bags.

But even after the COVID-19 virus outbreak has stopped, states should reconsider single-use plastic bans entirely.

Many of the concerns about single-use plastic are overstated. A major concern is that plastics wind up in the world’s oceans. While a problem, the plastic ending up in the ocean does not come from the US. A 2015 study estimated that the U.S. is responsible for just 1% of the plastic that ends up in the ocean. Litter from plastic bags is another common reason for bans. In reality, the 2009 Keep America Beautiful Survey found that plastic bags account for just 0.6% of litter nationwide. Plastic that ends up as litter and in the oceans is usually the result of places not having a well-functioning waste management system, unlike the U.S.

The disposability of single-use plastics is what makes them so valuable. When buying groceries, plastic bags keep meat juices from contaminating the rest of your groceries. They provide all kinds of stores a low-cost way to help consumers bring home goods they purchase. Moreover, single-use plastics often have more than one use – many are reused as trashcan liners or used for clean-up as people walk their dogs.

In the fight against COVID-19, state policymakers should look to the examples of Maine, New Hampshire, and New York, where plastic bag bans have been reversed. But for the long term, they should familiarize themselves with ALEC’s model policy, the Auxiliary Container Act.