Environmentalists and other citizens rightly cheered on March 1 when New York’s ban on single-use plastic bags took effect.
Single-use plastic bags used to carry groceries and takeout food — 23 billion of them in New York every year alone — pollute land and waterways and clog solid waste facilities, threatening wildlife while remaining in the environment for decades.
New Yorkers were beginning to embrace the new ban, albeit with some grumbling. More and more, they’ve been bringing their reusable bags with them to the store or walking out with paper bags, which generally are less harmful to the environment.
But as with almost everything in our daily lives, the coronavirus is turning this new reality upside down.
And it’s given new life to the plastics industry and the fossil-fuel industry, both of which vehemently opposed the bag ban because it was costing them money.
They now want to exploit the coronavirus to overturn this long-overdue action.
Don’t let it happen.
There’s limited evidence that the coronavirus is being spread by reusable bags.
The virus can stick to plastic and porous surfaces for a number of days, and therefore could technically help spread the disease when customers place their reusable bags on grocery belts and other surfaces.
But the virus also can stick to single-use plastic bags during the manufacturing, shipping and stocking process. So there’s no guarantee the old plastic bags are sanitary when customers and clerks use them.
The solution to this cleanliness problem isn’t to overturn the plastic bag ban. In fact, it should be expanded in the near future.
The solution is to continue to allow stores to hand out plastic bags on a limited basis and to continue to take measures to make all surfaces as sanitary as possible.
That means store clerks need to regularly wipe down their register areas, as many are already doing. It means shoppers need to continue to help stop the spread of the virus by shopping as little as possible, by keeping their hands clean, maintaining social distancing and other measures.
Shoppers can keep using their reusable bags without spreading the virus by simply washing them. They’re reusable. Fabric bags can be thrown in the washing machine. Heavy plastic and vinyl reusable bags can be wiped down with a treated cloth or soaked in soapy water and dried.
The state has already suspended enforcement of the bag ban until May 15. So stores can keep handing out single-use bags.
Shoppers concerned about spreading the virus can keep using them. And customers can keep using their reusable bags by taking the reasonable steps that we’re all getting used to taking.
But for the plastics and fuel industries to exploit this situation for their own profit — by using it to try to overturn the ban on single-use plastic bags and to discourage its expansion — is irresponsible and unnecessary.
The ban was enacted to protect the environment.
It was necessary then. And it will be necessary in the future.