Plastics in the time of pandemic

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This week, we just want to say one word to you.

THE BIG IDEA

BAG BANS, INTERRUPTED — For a while, it looked like 2020 would be a turning point in the war against single-use plastics, with California and New York adopting new bans and federal legislation being introduced. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Single-use plastics became associated with safety from sickness, and industry lobbyists saw an opportunity to gain ground in the policy debate.

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The year started with environmentalists winning legislation to phase out plastic hotel toiletry bottles in California. In February, Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico and Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California, both Democrats, introduced the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act with great fanfare.

“We had so much momentum going into this,” says Jennie Romer, legal associate for plastic pollution initiative at the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation.

That momentum shattered in March, when the liberal bastion of San Francisco banned shoppers from using their own bags. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, followed with an executive order suspending a state ban on single-use bags. A ballot initiative to ban polystyrene and tax plastics probably will be punted to 2022. New York put enforcement of its bag ban on hold because of an industry lawsuit that was delayed by court closures linked to Covid-19. Chicago suspended collection of its plastic bag tax.

The next battle is playing out now, over whether restaurants should use disposable plates and cutlery as they reopen for dine-in service, POLITICO’s Debra Kahn reports from San Francisco. California says silverware and ceramic plates are fine to use as long as they are cleaned properly, but that message runs counter to federal guidance and what’s already happening in other states.

California’s dilemma is directly tied to jockeying in Washington, where the Plastics Industry Association asked the federal Department of Health and Human Services to publicly tout the safety benefits of single-use plastics. HHS didn’t bite, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance saying disposables should be the default at eateries. (Keep reading for our breakdown of the science on what materials can transmit the virus.)

“On my optimistic days, I would call this a temporary roadblock,” Romer said. “But I think we have to work hard to make this a temporary roadblock, because the plastics industry is working hard to make it more than temporary.”

Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, says the industry isn’t trying to capitalize on the pandemic. But he acknowledges the outbreak is likely to shift the policy debate away from the all-or-nothing push for bans.

"It’s raised awareness of a very important unintended consequence that is presented by plastic bag bans,” Seaholm tells The Long Game. “You’ve got grocery store workers who are literally on the front lines of this pandemic for the last couple months, they’re the ones saying, ‘Hey, don’t bring in any reusable bags.’”

CONGRESS WATCH

LEGISLATIVE LIMBO Broadly speaking, the plastics debate centers on two overlapping priorities: less use and more recycling. The policy disagreement is over where to focus first — and who pays. It’s a topic that has attracted big-money interest in Washington: Coca-Cola, Unilever and BASF are among the companies lobbying on plastics use.

The plastics industry is all about recycling, an approach embodied in the Recover Act, a bipartisan bill that would grant $500 million to states and localities to expand recycling. Industry groups want to double that amount.

“You’ve got to be realistic and say, ‘OK we’re probably not going to be able to ban all these products because they’re so ubiquitously used,’” says Rep. Larry Bucshon (R-Ind.), who co-sponsors the Recover Act with Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.).

Recycling subsidies aren’t enough, Udall counters. His bill would require companies, not local governments, to bear the cost of reclamation, make more packaging recyclable and phase out single-use plastics such as utensils.

The pandemic doesn’t change the fact that a “fundamentally new approach” is needed, Udall says.

“Big plastic,” he says, “shouldn’t be exploiting this crisis.”

DATA DIVE

Plastic consumption has risen dramatically over the past few decades, but the overwhelming majority of the resulting waste flows into landfills.

MEA CULPA Our graphic last week on transit data misstated changes in commuter data. It has been updated to correct the name of the Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the data evaluated.

YOU TELL US

Welcome to The Long Game! Read last week's issue in case you missed it. We want to know what you think and what we’re missing. We won’t take anything personally, promise. Send tips, critiques and all your sustainability questions — and answers — to [email protected] and [email protected]. Find us on Twitter @ceboudreau and @nickjuliano. Did someone forward this to you? Subscribe here!

We asked you how Covid is changing the way you get around. Justin Margolis, who works in public and government affairs in Washington, D.C., told us he bought his own electric moped after previously using the sharing service Revel. Mary Krohner from Gig Harbor in Washington state said she wants to buy an electric car with a 350-mile range on a single charge — something Tesla’s Model 3 recently achieved.

This week, we want to know: Have you given up trying to reduce plastic use during the pandemic? What were you doing before Covid struck, and how have those habits changed? Submit your answers here, and we may feature your response in the next issue.

IDEAS LAB

TO RECYCLE OR REUSE? Tom Szaky isn’t rooting for the collapse of the recycling business — but he is prepared to capitalize on it. Szaky, founder of reusable packaging startup Loop, is trying to persuade Americans to return to the days of the milkman, only this time shampoo, peanut butter and ice cream would arrive on doorsteps in specially designed containers and the empties returned for refills. “When less things become recyclable, our relevance increases,” Szaky tells The Long Game. “We’re a reaction to a failing recycling system.”

Loop works with brands including Procter & Gamble, Unilever, Nestlé and Mars to create durable packaging that Loop cleans and sells back to them. Kroger plans to begin selling Loop products in some of its West Coast grocery stores by the end of this year, and Walgreens stores on the East Coast will join next year, Szaky says. The company is valued at $100 million, with more than 100,000 customers so far on its online testing platforms.

Loop’s approach would require modern consumers to pay a deposit of between $1 and $10 per item, refunded when empty containers are returned. Szaky didn’t disclose Loop’s sales but says they have increased steadily since he launched the company at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year.

“From a brand point of view, they have huge sustainability challenges. Ever since the straw up a turtle’s nose went viral, people are angry” about plastic waste, Szaky says. “The other thing is, brands want to innovate and give consumers cool products.”

As for the recyclers, they also see opportunity in corporate sustainability commitments — especially when historically low oil prices mean it's cheaper for companies to buy new plastic, says Steve Alexander, CEO of the Association of Plastic Recyclers, a trade association. Alexander encourages companies to use more recycled materials and packaging that can be recycled. “If you think about it, brand companies listen to their consumers and what their consumers have been telling them is we want your packaging to be sustainable. ... It’s additionality to the value of the package, it’s not a cost,” he says.

THE LONG GAME FORUM

We asked our group of sustainability experts whether it’s really so bad we’re using more plastic during the pandemic, when we’re scared of everything we touch? Also, should taxpayers or businesses be responsible for funding recycling?

“It's very problematic if it continues. That said, we are going to see bag bans come back, NGOs get louder, companies finding new materials or new ways to reduce plastic in packaging and new reuse models emerging with low or zero touch interfaces,” says Bridget Croke, managing partner, Closed Loop Partners. On recycling, she adds: “We likely need a mix of the two along with a concerted effort to rebuild the market for recycling and ensuring companies are buying recycled commodities to use in their manufacturing of new products and packaging.”

“This increases the urgency in upgrading our recycling infrastructure to be able to process harder-to-recycle materials like flexible plastic films, which includes dry cleaning bags, plastic bags and the plastic wrap used for paper towels and toilet paper,” says David Tulauskas, chief sustainability officer of Nestlé Waters North America. “To make large-scale changes, everyone has a role to play in reducing waste and creating circular economies.”

REALLY?

HOW SAFE IS THAT TOTE? Is your reusable grocery bag carrying coronavirus? The science is, well … kind of a mixed bag. That’s led to a lot of confusion for consumers, shifting guidance from the federal government and a patchwork of policies at different stores — and some states and local government agencies temporarily waiving plastic bag fees. The plastics industry is stepping up its fight against bans on single-use bags and claiming that reusable ones carry harmful pathogens.

Here’s the skinny: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it is possible to pick up Covid-19 by touching contaminated surfaces, but the virus “does not spread easily” this way because it doesn’t survive well on things like delivered packages or takeout food bags. The FDA is telling consumers to wash their reusable shopping bags before each trip to the store, but the agency’s guidance does not recommend opting for single-use plastic instead.

Several studies indicate the virus can survive on objects that are not disinfected. The New England Journal of Medicine recently found that coronavirus could survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days. A team of researchers in Germany determined it can persist for up to nine days on metal, glass or plastic, but that it can be “efficiently inactivated” with less than a minute of cleaning. In 2011, a University of Arizona study found foodborne pathogens like E. coli could survive on reusable bags, but washing the bags eliminated 99.9 percent of bacteria. That research was funded by the American Chemistry Council, which represents major plastic and chemical-makers.

The bottom line: If you’re not going to wash your reusable grocery bags, don’t take them shopping. It’ll probably be worse for the planet, though. And if you do bring bags from home, the store may ask you to bag your own groceries.

AROUND THE WORLD

DEMAND DROP Cheap oil and the economic slowdown are making life difficult for European recyclers, our colleague Eline Schaart reports from Brussels. The industry is shutting production down due because of the closure of converting plants and low demand. (German carmakers use a lot of recycled plastics, for example.) At the same time, the collapse of international travel and widespread shutdowns had made oil very cheap and resulted in record-low prices for virgin polymers. That means that all the pledges of companies to use more recycled plastics comes with a hefty price tag.

The warnings from recyclers come against a backdrop of increased demand for plastics and rising levels of household waste. While there aren’t any conclusive stats, plastic producers and converters tell Eline that there's been a clear increase in demand, especially for packaging. And several nations have reported that trash collection is on the rise.

The plastics lobby is using coronavirus as a window of opportunity to tout its product as the most hygienic alternative. But the European Commission has made it clear it won't consider the lobby's request for delays to plastic bans. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will present her coronavirus recovery proposal this week, and she will call for new investments in the waste management sector, according to an internal commission note obtained by POLITICO. The document cites a €10 billion-a-year investment gap to improve reuse and recycling across the EU, but it does not suggest any specific funding sources.

What We're Reading

— Houston in July will start powering all of its city-owned properties with 100 percent renewable energy, reaching its goal five years ahead of schedule, Bloomberg reports.

— Plant-based food sales grew faster than total retail during mid-March, when consumers rushed to grocery stores as stay-at-home orders set in, new data from The Plant-Based Foods Association shows.