Massachusetts recently announced that it was ending its pandemic moratorium on reusable shopping bags, saying towns could go back to reinforcing their bans on single-use plastic bags.
Meanwhile, New Hampshire and many other states are still not letting shoppers bring their reusable bags to stores. But is that actually helping to slow the spread of coronavirus?
The answer is complicated – and it’s been frustrating for residents like Elizabeth Shelly of Manchester. She says her bag of bags has been growing steadily since the pandemic began.
“They come home, they get balled up, they go somewhere, and they live there until they get thrown out,” she says.
Shelly used to grocery shop with reusable cloth and plastic bags. But since the early days of New Hampshire's coronavirus response in mid-March, her bags have not been allowed in stores. Clerks have to give out single-use paper or plastic bags instead.
The rule came out of the fear that the virus can live on certain surfaces – including plastic – carrying COVID-19 from people’s homes, to store workers and other customers.
The science around that is still developing.
But Shelly is worried the pandemic has interrupted a good habit for her and a lot of other people. She was just beginning to get consistent about bringing her reusable bags with her every time she shopped.
“I think this will have long-term implications for the habitualizing of using reusables and keeping it on one’s mind,” she says. “It’s hard to these days – there’s so much going on around us to make environment anywhere near the forefront.”
So do reusable bags actually help spread coronavirus?
Epidemiologist John Nwangu is based at Southern Connecticut University and investigates disease outbreaks all over the globe for the World Health Organization.
He says current research shows the virus can live on surfaces like plastic, metal and cloth.
“However, the chances are not as high as the communication of the virus through droplets,” he says. “And of course the droplet comes out of the mouth or the nose.”
Nwangwu joined more than 100 experts who signed a letter, spearheaded by Greenpeace in June, saying the science shows reusable bags are safe as long as they’re cleaned between uses.
The letter says it would be safer regardless to have customers handle and bag their own groceries during the pandemic.
And Nwangwu says the best protection is one some stores are now requiring: workers and shoppers wearing face masks.
“With the reusable bags not being primary source of infection but rather secondary, I wouldn’t spend my time worrying too much about that,” he says. “However, mask is primary. It’s important.”
Like many states, New Hampshire has had a complete ban on reusable bags since the start of the pandemic – but still only a recommendation, not a requirement, for people to wear masks.
Judith Enck is a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, and the founder of the Vermont-based group Beyond Plastics. She sees politics in that.
“The plastics lobbyists did not miss a beat in exploiting the coronavirus to their financial benefit,” Enck says.
At the start of the pandemic, the plastic sector was already fighting a rising number of local and state bans on single-use plastic bags. On March 18, the industry trade group asked federal regulators to speak out against these bans in light of new fears about coronavirus.
On March 21, Governor Chris Sununu banned the use of reusable bags for as long as New Hampshire stays in a state of emergency.
He’s pushed back on calls to lift that ban even as other states have done so, saying it’s important to move slowly as we “flex” open the economy.
“I think there’s a value in being cautious about what we do,” Sununu said at a press conference in late June.
Environmental advocates say they see the value in caution around coronavirus – but they don’t want to lose the awareness that’s grown recently around plastic as a climate change issue.
Plastic comes from crude oil, so demand for it drives more extraction -- in particular, gas fracking, which generates a byproduct called ethane used in many plastics. More new facilities that process this chemical are being cited near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.
Environmental Protection Agency data shows that the vast majority of plastic ends up in landfills or, less often, is incinerated for energy recovery -- either way, creating more planet-warming emissions.
Only 9% of plastic ever produced has been recycled, according to a 2017 study, and only 10% of those plastics have been recycled more than once. When plastic pollution in the form of litter or microplastics ends in the oceans, soil and air, it can be harmful to fragile ecosystems and human health.
And recent industry data shows that plastic production is the main driver of future demand for fossil fuels.
Still, some hope the reusable bag bans of COVID-19 will stick around.
John Dumais leads the New Hampshire Grocers Association. He says the answer to the waste issue lies in those plastic bag return bins you see in some grocery stores – a recycling method also often pushed by the plastics industry.
The EPA says only about 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled, and environmental groups argue the real number is likely even lower.
Still, Dumais says people could take more advantage of that option.
For one thing, plastic bags are cheaper for his stores to provide than paper. And he says his industry has always felt reusable bags are unsanitary - and that you can’t guarantee people will clean them.
“I don’t see that we would ever be 100% supporting that they come back,” Dumais says. “Wouldn’t you think you’d understand that maybe that wasn’t a good idea in the beginning?”
Though environmental advocates and waste-conscious residents might disagree, for now, at least in New Hampshire, the moratorium on reusable bags will remain in place.