March 24, 2020
The Plastics Industry Association has written a letter to the US Department of Health and Human Services and Food and Drug Administration asking them to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” and to “speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk... and help stop the rush to ban these products.”
We are appalled that the plastics industry is using the American people’s fears about the coronavirus to push for making more single-use plastic. The letter is a sleazy attempt to fearmonger in a time of crisis. It is an attempt to further their agenda of stopping bans on high-pollution plastic products while demonizing the safer, more sustainable alternatives. This crisis shouldn’t be used to roll back local and state government policies that protect the planet by eliminating unnecessary single-use plastics.
The plastics industry letter refers to three “studies” showing potential contamination of reusable bags by consumers who don’t wash them enough. But a close look at the evidence shows industry claims about single-use plastics being the safest choice are unfounded.
The plastics industry letter cites a study funded by the American Chemistry Council, a trade association representing the plastics and chemicals industries. The results showed that reusable polypropylene bags can contain bacteria, and that users don’t wash reusable bags very often. But the study authors didn’t state that there were any health-related threats posed by the types and levels of bacteria in the reusable bags. They suggested that people wash their reusable bags, not replace them with single-use plastic ones.
Moreover, many foods and food packaging products contain high levels of bacteria when tested. In response to the aforementioned study, Consumer Reports’ food safety experts were underwhelmed, stating “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study.”
Another “study” cited by the Plastics Industry Association is not actually a study at all. It was an 2012 NBC News article about a girls soccer team sickened by transmission of norovirus when one sick girl “spread an aerosol of the virus in a hotel room which landed on everything in the room” - including the surface of a reusable grocery bag that tested positive for the virus. It’s not clear that this is how the team got sick. If that bag had been a disposable plastic bag, it too could have had norovirus on it.
There is currently no credible evidence that coronavirus or any other health-threatening pathogens are transferred by reusable bags or containers. Neither has the industry shown that reusable cups, containers or other forms of food packaging has caused any illness. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “There is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”
But coronavirus can last on surfaces, and remains on plastic for up to three days. Studies have shown that coronavirus can last on surfaces of all kinds, including plastic, metal, and cloth, for varying amounts of time, and it doesn’t matter whether the product is disposable or reusable. A study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) remains on plastics and stainless steel for up to three days and on cardboard for up to one day. The only way to ensure that the transmission of coronavirus does not occur is to sanitize product surfaces.
The good news is that reusable foodware and containers are effectively sanitized by food service businesses. The U.S. Food Code governs all practices in food service with respect to sanitizing reusable foodware, ensuring that people who dine on-site at restaurants that use real dishware are well protected against food-borne illnesses. Reusable cup and container companies have to adhere to the same requirements. Reusable food packaging is therefore sanitary, unless touched by someone carrying a transmissible virus.
This is also true for food delivered to consumers in disposable plastic containers and bags. When the delivery service brings a prepared meal or groceries to a customer’s door, it doesn’t matter whether the package is single-use plastic or a reusable metal container. What matters is whether the person who prepared or handled the food is a carrier of the virus.
Single-use plastics and food packaging threaten human health in other ways. According to a recently-released peer-reviewed scientific consensus statement, over 12,000 chemicals are used in food packaging and many of them are hazardous to human health. Migration of these toxic chemicals out of disposables into our food and drinks is not an issue with non-plastic reusables.
Let’s not let the plastics industry attempt to persuade us to trade the coronavirus crisis for the climate and plastic pollution crises. We are making great progress on reducing single-use plastic and cleaning up beaches and waterways. To date, in jurisdictions where plastic bags are banned or charges are in effect in the U.S., we have seen a 60-90% decrease in plastic bag litter and an average 80% increase in reusable bags.
Similar progress is starting to be made in switching out single-use plastic and paper food packaging for reusables. By continuing to find ways to reduce single-use, we can stop climate pollution, reduce the extraction of oil and gas, and dramatically decrease the disposable plastics entering the water we drink, food we eat, and air we breathe.
If you want to learn more about how to safely use reusables and sanitize food packaging during the time of COVID-19, listen to the latest Indisposable Podcast and read our statement from last week: Plastic pollution, reuse, and COVID-19.
CONTACT: Vanessa Tiongson, UPSTREAM Marketing and Communications Director, firstname.lastname@example.org
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