04 • 02 • 2020

Single-Use Plastic Bags During COVID-19

By Jennie Romer

Updated June 26, 2020

These are undeniably unprecedented and difficult times. The Surfrider Foundation’s first and foremost commitment is to the health and safety of our volunteers, activists, staff and community as we navigate through the current COVID-19 situation. We are appreciative of the frontline workers, including healthcare workers as well as those working in grocery and other essential stores and takeout restaurants, and we support the critical importance of protecting the health and well-being of these workers and our communities at large. We are truly in this together.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, states and local municipalities are practicing extreme caution to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. While most of the recent safety measures are useful, some have been put in place that either temporarily roll back single-use plastic bag bans or stop the implementation of statewide bag laws. As legislators continue to grapple with temporary changes to policies, Surfrider is working closely with decision-makers by providing insights and best-available science on how to honor the intent of these laws, while prioritizing enhanced safety concerns. Once the pandemic is contained, we will continue to seek enforcement for plastic bag bans to reduce plastic pollution at the source. 

The Surfrider Foundation has been advocating for plastic pollution reduction for more than a decade. Our efforts have resulted in bag laws and other policies that have encouraged reusable products instead of one-time, single-use products. These policies have been effective in reducing plastic consumption and are still viable. In fact, more than 471 local plastic bag ordinances have been adopted in 28 states and eight states have implemented statewide plastic bag bans to reduce pollution at the source.

While we recognize that some legislators may decide to temporarily pause or delay implementation of bag laws during the global pandemic, if these modifications become permanent they could reverse progress in the fight against single-use plastics and may have long-term ramifications in creating a more sustainable society. This pandemic also shouldn't be used as an opportunity to roll back protections of our nation’s clean air and water for our communities.

In mid-June, over 115 scientists, academics, and doctors from 18 countries signed onto a statement reassuring retailers and consumers that reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene and protective measures.

A study also found that the viable virus lasts longer on polypropylene plastic and stainless steel surfaces (up to three days), than on copper and cardboard surfaces (roughly four and 24 hours). Therefore, it is important to be cautious and try to limit the amount of packaging and single-use plastic that is entering your home. Reusables are still a safe, preferred, and sustainable option when proper precautions are taken. 

What are the best practices for using reusable bags during the pandemic?

Maintaining a sustainable lifestyle and reducing plastic pollution is still possible when proper precautions are taken. Here are a few best practices for reusable bags:

●      Follow local, state and federal guidelines and store policies. If reusable bags are not currently allowed, consider asking for your purchased items to be placed back in your cart so you can bag them yourself in your reusable bag outside the store.

●      If you have a small quantity of items, self-checkout is a great way to practice social distancing and limit face-to-face exposure, often without needing a bag at all.

●      Fabric reusable bags are a better choice than reusable bags made from plastic normally, and may be even more so now as the coronavirus has been shown to last longer on plastics than on other materials. Non-plastic items can also be washed thoroughly in hot water and soap.

●      Just as with the clothes you wear, make sure that your reusable bags are properly cleaned prior to each use.

●      After every use outside your home, we encourage you to wash your fabric reusable bags with soap and hot water either in the laundry or by hand, and disinfect reusable bags made from plastic. Disinfection should be the same for other surfaces (e.g. 70% alcohol based or properly diluted bleach solution).