It was late March when I received an email from The New York Times requesting comment on the moves to delay plastic bag bans due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. I was out of the office in Arizona on a trip with my dad to attend a couple of spring training baseball games when out of left field came this email. While spring training was canceled, the debate over plastics was not.
Throughout the last year of bag ban discussion in New York, we actively tried to get The New York Times to engage in the industry's perspective on the issue — to no avail. So, why the newfound curiosity? I learned during the interview that Greenpeace had issued a "report." This report detailed our alleged incredibly complex web of efforts to spread misinformation about reusable bags to have them banned. However, the reality is that we were not spending a dime on trying to get reusable bags banned. On the contrary, all our members make reusable bags, so we would never advocate for a policy that bans these products. But you would never know from reading the Times story, which used a retweet of a Boston Herald article as the primary proof of our nefarious nationwide campaign.
As expected, the echo chamber kicked into high gear. Several other reporters ran with similar versions of the same story. Greenpeace and other activist organizations fired up their spin machine and placed op-eds across the country falsely attacking bag manufacturers. We were accused of "scaring people" to "boost industry profits in a time of crisis." Greenpeace also claimed that we "exploited COVID-19 as an opportunity to push single-use plastic bags and packaging as safe, despite a lack of evidence to support that." The list of attacks goes on, despite the fact we weren't engaged in any type of campaign of these sorts at all.
Concerns about the contamination of reusable bags have been around since the first plastic bag bans in the country were being considered. But when the coronavirus started taking off in the United States, grocery stores and their employees became worried about unwashed reusable bags coming into stores. So in the interest of protecting these employees — who became frontline workers seemingly overnight — many stores started prohibiting the use of reusable bags. Many elected officials also heeded these concerns by suspending or delaying bag bans or taxes.
While not surprising, it is disappointing that activist organizations have pushed a misleading narrative to further their own agenda. Plastic bag manufacturers endured these attacks and stayed open to ensure that grocery stores across the country had bags to provide to customers looking to get food and supplies. They endured these attacks as they donated spare bags to food pantries and local charities in need. And they endured these attacks as they scrambled to retrofit their manufacturing lines to make personal protective equipment for medical facilities across America.
It's a sad reflection of the politics of plastics in a time of pandemic. However, we aren't surprised that as soon as plastic bag bans were called into question, activist organizations mobilized a campaign driven by misinformation to attack bag manufacturers. But there is no doubt that this pandemic begs a discussion on whether these bans were a good idea in the first place.
It is important to remember that the plastics industry and these activist groups share the same goal of making sure plastic waste doesn't end up in the environment. But too long have these organizations posed the false binary choice of, "Either you're for plastic bans or you don't care about the environment." There is so much middle ground that can be found. Our members' sustainability commitment remains a good framework for meaningful things to be done other than simply banning products. Recycled content, in particular, is a much better approach than arbitrarily banning a certain type of bag. We know that increasing access to recycling and making sure products get recycled are necessary steps, and we are excited to see the plastics industry working on so many new developments in this space.
Americans still have a long road ahead before COVID-19 is a thing of the past, and it's still too early to predict what plastic regulations will look like in the years to come. But I think it couldn't hurt to take a deep breath and take a good, long look at these policies. Maybe there is another option other than "ban, ban, ban."