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OM in the News: The Plastic Bag Controversy

March 26, 2020

The NY ban on plastic bags has forced customers to use bags of paper, cotton, or more durable plastics.

Reusable shopping bags are “petri dishes for bacteria and carriers of harmful pathogens,” read one warning from a plastics industry group. They are “virus-laden.” The group’s target?  Countless Americans increasingly using natural fiber bags instead of disposable plastic bags.

The plastic bag industry, battered by a wave of bans nationwide, is using the coronavirus crisis to try to block laws prohibiting single-use plastic, reports The New York Times (March 26, 2020). “We simply don’t want millions of Americans bringing germ-filled reusable bags into retail establishments putting the public and workers at risk,” said an industry campaign ad. The Plastics Industry Association went so far as to request the US government to declare that banning single-use plastics during a pandemic is a health threat.

The science around reusable bags and their potential to spread disease is contentious. One study found that reusable plastic bags can contain bacteria, and that users don’t wash reusable bags very often. A government study found that coronavirus can remain on plastics for up to 3 days.

What is clear, however, is that single-use plastic bans have become a growing threat for the plastics industry. Packaging  makes up 1/3 of end-use demand for plastic resins as a whole. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the nationwide move to ban plastic bags had reached California, Hawaii, New York, as well as cities like Boston, Boulder, Chicago, and Seattle. But now disposability, once a dirty word, has become a selling point as hygiene takes priority over sustainability. Because plastic is made from fossil fuels, plastic prices track oil prices — which have slumped. That has made recycling plastic less economical.

Ironically, the bag ban in California in 2016, which led to elimination of 40 million pounds of single-use plastic bags, led to a 12 million pound increase in larger trash-bag purchases.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1.  Make the case in support of single-use plastic bags.
  2.  Make the case against them.
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