States and local governments are continuing to suspend single-use plastics bans during the coronavirus pandemic, although a few, like New York state, have pushed ahead in the opposite direction. New York adopted a budget April 2 that bans single-use expanded polystyrene food containers.
Next door in Connecticut, Gov. Ned Lamont joined the chorus of leaders taking a coronavirus pause to plastics environmental laws, suspending that state's new 10-cent plastic bag fee as part of a wide-ranging order March 26. He also said store employees cannot be required to bag items in a reusable bag.
San Francisco, one of the first cities to ban plastics bags in the U.S., on March 31 barred people from bringing reusable bags, mugs or other containers to grocery stores and restaurants, as part of a large package of new city regulations.
And the mayor of Hawaii County, part of the state of the same name, on April 1 suspended its plastic bag ban for 60 days.
But hitting the pause button on plastics laws wasn't universal, with some leaders continuing to cite pollution and environmental worries in moving ahead with plans that date before the COVID-19 disease emerged.
New York's EPS law, which bans the material in single-use food containers and in loose-fill "peanut" packaging, is the "strongest statewide [EPS] ban in the United States," according to a news release from Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
But it also may be effectively putting off any potential debate on health issues, since it does not take effect until Jan. 1, 2022.
Washington state, as well, voted in late March to move ahead with a ban on plastic bags.
The debate also heated up in New Jersey, with local media reporting that several cities were delaying plastic bag laws over public health concerns.
That prompted a coalition of environmental groups to issue a letter March 31 to the 54 cities and towns in New Jersey that have plastic bag ordinances, urging them to keep those laws in place. They said that Bradley Beach, N.J., decided to keep its bag law.
The groups, including Beyond Plastic and Environment New Jersey, argued that there's no evidence that single-use plastic bags are more sanitary than reusable bags. They said coronavirus could also spread on other surfaces in stores, like steel cans, shopping cart handles and change from the cash register.
But the Plastics Industry Association argues that studies point to problems with reusables, like consumers not washing them enough and, in studies that predate the emergence of the COVID-19 disease, showing that reusable bags can act as carriers for other pathogens.
The association recently wrote Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar asking that agency to make a policy statement against local bag bans and raising concerns about reusables.
One research firm suggested that the pandemic will put sustainability concerns on hold, at least temporarily.
"Although sustainability will slowly become more important again once the spread of COVID-19 has ceased, the increased awareness of cleanliness and germs is likely to remain ... and will continue to hinder the growth of sustainability initiatives," said Emily Salter, an analyst with the firm GlobalData.