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Business Regulation

Editor’s view: Be wary of those using COVID-19 to turn back the clock on sustainability.

Winston Churchill when working to form the United Nations after WWII, famously said, “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And sadly, but perhaps not at all surprisingly, there are forces already hard at work, determined to use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to push back the sustainable developments we have seen in recent years.

Let’s focus on just one aspect, the plastic bag, a symbol of our wasteful and disposable society and one that has been slowly, but methodically whether by taxes, lack of distribution or by the provision of better alternatives marginalised in recent years.  But those hardy supporters of these carriers, which have an average lifetime of just 12 minutes from point of sale to destination, see this global health crisis as an opportunity to promote their use.

A number of articles warning that cloth bags pose a higher risk than plastic in transmitting the virus have appeared in the media. One of the primary voices in this push is the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free market thinktank based in Washington DC. Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the organisation wrote a piece in the Washington Examiner, in which she claimed “reusable bags can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and other pathogens.”

Another thinktank, The Manhattan Institute, have also offered an equally robust view; “The COVID-19 outbreak is giving new meaning to those ‘sustainable’ shopping bags that politicians and environmentalists have been so eager to impose on the public. These reusable tote bags can sustain the COVID-19 and flu viruses — and spread the viruses throughout the store.”

Whilst on 24th March, the Plastics Industry Association sent this letter, obtained by Politico, to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.

“We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk,” the industry group wrote.

On March 31st, New Hampshire became the first state in the US to temporarily ban reusable bags during the pandemic and other states and cities are following, similar discussions and proposals are happening around the world.

So far, so credible. Right? Well, recent studies have found that COVID-19 could exist on plastic for two to three days (in laboratory conditions). There’s been no research into how the virus fares on textiles and fabric. There is no evidence of an increased risk. Yes, it’s wise to be vigilant. But what’s driving this push against reusable bags?

Well, the CEI have a long history of pro-plastic advocacy, even in 2011, Angela Logomasini was writing articles such as ‘Plastic Bag Bans Are Bad for the Environment’ and their website is full of similar viewpoints, including ‘Plastic Bag Ban Mania Will Do More Harm than Good’ and ‘Science Shows that it’s Not Really Green to Ban Plastic Bags. I guess you can’t put a price on consistency.

The CEI have long opposed environmental legislation, and adheres to that particular brand of conservatism built on ‘limited regulation and ‘consumer freedom’ that typically supports large corporations and traditional industrial processes. The CEI is funded by individuals and foundations and a number of companies in the energy, technology, automotive, and alcohol and tobacco industries.

The Manhattan Institute are similar, with a stated commitment to ‘foster economic choice and individual responsibility’ and have been consistently critical of climate change science and are funded largely by major corporations, including oil companies and conservative foundations.

Plastics Industry Association are of course a member’s organisation, funded by companies who make and sell plastics and supporting their interests.

Greenpeace USA are worried, Plastics Research Specialist, Ivy Schlegel ( @professorives ) wrote in a statement; “At a time when people need factual medical research to inform their decisions around protecting their families, the plastics industry has worked to exploit our fears for profits. For years, the plastics industry has pushed industry-funded research to try to discredit the movement to end single-use plastic pollution. And when COVID-19 began to spread, they saw it as an opportunity to strike and activate their network of pro-plastic surrogates. Now more than ever, we need independent guidance from medical professionals to inform our decisions around hygiene and shopping. People’s safety should come before profits.”

In a period of extreme and understandable concern from the public and a deluge of information, messages like this from vested interests, could pose a real danger to the sustainable steps the world has taken in the recent years. With a period of economic uncertainty ahead (to put it mildly), it will be far too easy for governments to park environmental concerns to support a return to ‘business as usual’ approach when in fact, we should be using our enforced change in how we now see society to create a better, greener, safer world.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know –

The views in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Bio Market Insights.

If you were interested in this bioeconomy story news, you may also be interested in the ones below.

Point of View: Appreciating nature

News: MPs urge UK Ministers to ensure the climate crisis remains a top priority despite the postponement of COP26

Watch: How the Baltic Sea’s pollutants could instead be turned into valuable resources.

Feature: European Commission launches online consultation to gather stakeholder views on 2030 climate target

Feature: Bioplastics to ‘play key role’ in implementation of circular economy and EU environmental directives.

News: USDA proposes new GM rule.

News: USDA amends its guidelines for designating bio-based products.


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