Washington — The Plastics Industry Association is asking the U.S. Health and Human Services Department to make a public statement in support of single-use plastics and to speak out against bans, linking it to the fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
The Washington-based association sent a letter March 18 to HHS Secretary Alex Azar asking the agency to wade into the issue, arguing that there are health concerns around reusable packaging like shopping bags spreading viruses and bacteria.
"We are asking that the Department of Health and Human Services investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics," wrote Tony Radoszewski, president and CEO of the association, in a letter the business group posted on a coronavirus related web page it maintains.
"We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk," Radoszewski said.
The request to HHS comes as some places around the country have relaxed bans against plastic packaging, citing concerns that reusable bags may spread coronavirus.
Maine's legislature voted to delay implementation of its bag ban until next year, as part of larger coronavirus-related actions, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu March 21 ordered stores there to use only new plastic or paper bags and no longer accept reusable bags. Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker March 25 suspended local plastic bag bans and restricted reusable bags in stores, as media report Denver seemed likely to delay its ban.
But one state went ahead with plastic bag restrictions. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee March 25 signed a plastic bag ban into law, and press reports said Albuquerque city officials appeared to reject a push to lift its bag ban.
The push by the plastics industry was sharply criticized by environmental groups, who said there's no credible evidence of health risk from reusable bags or containers transmitting coronavirus or other pathogens.
"We are appalled that the plastics industry is using the American people's fear about the coronavirus to push for making more single-use plastic," said Miriam Gordon, policy director for the group Upstream, which advocates for reusable packaging. "This crisis should not be used to roll back local and state government policies that protect the planet by eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics."
The group issued a detailed statement responding to the association's letter, analyzing the studies mentioned in it. Upstream said that in one study industry cited did not claim any health risks and pointed to a Consumer Reports' study that said eating salad greens can give more exposure to the bacteria at issue than can reusable bags.
"There is currently no credible evidence that coronavirus or any other health-threatening pathogens are transferred by reusable bags or containers," Gordon said.
She said in food delivery, what's important is whether people handling or preparing the food have the virus.
Greenpeace, in a statement, pointed to research from National Institutes of Health that said the coronavirus can live on the surface of plastic for two or three days. The environmental group said single-use plastic is not inherently safer than other materials.
"The truth is that we don't have all of the answers to this COVID-19 emergency yet, and for industry to use this as an opportunity to increase profits for the fossil fuel and plastics sectors is dangerous and irresponsible," said John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
But the plastics association countered that there is strong evidence of risk from reusable packaging.
"Study after study after study have shown that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store, and live on surfaces for up to three days," Radoszewski wrote.
The letter said the association's submission to HHS included an affidavit from Ryan Sinclair, a professor of environmental biology at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health in Loma Linda, Calif., noting health concerns around reusable bags.
Sinclair published an op-ed on the USA Today website March 24 outlining his concerns, including protecting grocery clerks, and calling for New York state to either rescind its plastic bag ban or suspend it until the coronavirus crisis is over.
"My research has also shown that since reusable bags are highly likely to be contaminated, they are also highly likely to transfer pathogens to store employees and shoppers, particularly at high-contact points like check-out conveyors, food scanners, and grocery carts," Sinclair wrote.
Radoszewski pointed to Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and other chains suspending use of reusables, and he said in an interview that he sees the COVID-19 crisis changing public opinion around single-use plastics.
"The tide has so quickly turned, so much that the general public are starting to recognize the health benefits that we have been promoting forever, where you have an understanding that single-use plastics do help us live longer, healthier and better," he said.
"When everything's working, you don't think twice about it. Nobody's getting sick from an inability to get fresh food or bottle water or other things that are important," Radoszewski said.