You Don't Need Single-Use Plastic Bags. You Need a Mask

Even before the pandemic hit, the recycling industry wasn’t so much an industry as it was a perpetual crisis. Its economics are supposedly simple: A company has to make more money on the resulting recycled material than what it costs to gather plastic waste and process it. But the economics grow tangled when you consider that producing virgin plastic remains super cheap because it's made of oil, which has also been super cheap. So it’s more tempting than ever to just pump out more virgin plastic and let the recycling industry languish. To try to fudge the broken economics of recycling, the US used to sell oodles of plastic waste to China to process, but China nixed that deal in 2018 to boost its own domestic garbage collection.Then came Covid-19 to kneecap the recycling business . The price of oil has tanked , so oil producers have doubled down on the production of plastics as a revenue stream. Then social distancing led to the closure of 146 recycling programs across 35 states, disrupting the recycling of 88,000 tons of material by mid-June. Over in Europe, recyclers are pleading with the European Union to include their industry in recovery plans to ensure its survival.
All the while, single-use plastics are hotter than ever, as worried people try to limit their exposure to the virus. The plastics industry has egged on that fear to push for the resurrection of the maligned single-use plastic bag—eight states, including California, New York, and Hawaii, have banned the things in recent years. And it’s worked: Municipalities have rolled back bans while instead banning reusable bags, because of fears they could bring the virus from people’s homes into grocery stores.“If you're in the plastic industry, it's been pretty tough. You've been like the evil child,” says Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of the recycling company TerraCycle. “So it's no surprise that when suddenly you can highlight the benefit of plastic, you want to scream it from the mountaintops. So I think a part of that is the plastic industry saying, ‘See, we do have value, we're not just evil.’”

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But there’s a glaring problem with this fear of bag-borne germs: Plastic bags are not really the issue. “The overwhelming evidence—overwhelmingly—is this is spread person to person, the vast majority of the time,” says University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences epidemiologist and behavioral scientist Nickolas Zaller, who recently signed a statement along with over 100 other experts on the safety of reusables during the pandemic. “We're going to argue about the nuances of plastic bags, but we refuse to wear masks? That to me is really strange.” Blaming contagion on objects is an attractive concept to people who are reluctant to practice social distancing or wear a mask , he adds: “If plastics and surfaces are the big problem, then we can act how we want.”In that statement on reusables—released by Greenpeace and the plastic-pollution nonprofit Upstream—Zaller and his cosigners note that depending on the study, researchers have found the novel coronavirus to last between two and six days on plastic and steel. “To prevent transmission through objects and surfaces, one can assume that any object or surface in a public space—reusable or disposable—could be contaminated with the virus,” they write. “Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded.”

(After all, none of that plastic ever goes away. It just breaks into smaller microplastic particles—less than 5 millimeters long by definition—that have corrupted virtually every environment on earth. We’re breathing , eating , and drinking the stuff every day.)