Coronavirus pandemic prompts backslide of environmental protection work
Fred Stemmler hadn’t seen these uninvited guests for years - nor had he missed them. But now they were back with a vengeance.
Stemmler, general manager of Recology Sonoma Marin, was pitching in on the conveyor belt at the company’s recycling facility in south Santa Rosa just after 4:30 on Monday morning.
Moving at a brisk 10 mph, objects on the belt had been propelled through a series of rollers designed to lift light, flat objects - paper and cardboard - to the surface. Stowing away alongside those pulp products, Stemmler noticed, was “a large amount” of semi-opaque Safeway plastic bags.
Like a bad habit, they are back. Banned in California since 2016, such single-use plastic bags have returned to our lives, courtesy of the coronavirus pandemic. To reduce the risk of spread of the highly contagious pathogen, most Sonoma County grocers no longer allow reusable bags. That, coupled with a shortage of paper grocery bags, is contributing to a resurgence of the flimsy plastic bags Stemmler spent two hours plucking from his sorting line on Monday.
This comeback of plastic is just one way the pandemic is pausing - in some cases doing lasting damage - and, experts fear, unraveling years of work to reduce waste and improve environmental quality. From masks and gloves strewn along area roadsides and beaches to fewer options for safely disposing of hazardous household items, to the banning of reusable grocery bags and refillable coffee mugs, the intense focus on checking the virus is coming at a steep cost to the environment.
Lauren Olson is “very concerned that people are going to get out of the sustainable habits” - like bringing reusable bags to the store.
Olson is the zero waste manager at World Centric in Rohnert Park. The company makes compostable products, ranging from cups and cutlery to bags and bathroom tissue. She was admittedly “on autopilot” the day early this month when she approached the entrance to the Trader Joe’s in south Santa Rosa while carrying her reusable bags. Olson was reminded, politely but firmly by a store employee, she could not bring them into the market.
With friends and family working in grocery stores, she said, “I will do anything I can to make them feel safe.” That said, she has questions about the science upon which stores are basing their decision to ban reusable bags. Indeed, a recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine cited a study which found the virus causing COVID-19 is viable for up to 72 hours on plastics, 48 hours on stainless steel, and ?24 hours on cardboard.
Olson describes as “unfortunate” the concerted drive by the plastics industry to use the pandemic to overturn bans of plastic bags across the country. In March, Politico obtained a copy of a letter sent by the Plastics Industry Association to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asking the department to publicly endorse the idea that single-use plastics are the safest choice during the virus outbreak.
“I find it pretty disgusting, for sure,” Eric Potashner, Recology’s vice president and senior director of strategic affairs, said of the plastics lobby’s willingness “to take advantage” of the pandemic to “make it seem like their products are the healthy safe option right now.”
From a health and safety standpoint, Potashner said, “I haven’t seen anything (indicating) that plastics perform better than other materials.” In fact, he said, “some of published studies show that the virus actually sticks to plastic longer than other materials.”
Recology had pledged $1 million to support a November state ballot initiative requiring producers of single-use plastic packaging, among other measures, to make their products “reusable, recyclable or compostable” by 2030.
Given the economic carnage of the coronavirus, that ballot initiative has been pushed back to November 2022, Potashner said.
Because the deadlines in the measure don’t kick in until 2030, he pointed out, “there’s not a real practical change” in delaying it for two years.
Potashner acknowledged “any momentum we were making from a policy standpoint seems to be set back.”
The cost of oil, driven to historic lows by the pandemic, is also hurting Recology, which sells recycled plastics to manufacturers. Rock-bottom petroleum prices are making it cheaper for companies to buy “virgin” - brand new - rather than recycled material.
In ways global and local, the virus has been tough on the environment. Richard James of Inverness, who curates the blog Coastodian.org, has collected seven tons of refuse, on his back and in his kayak, from Tomales Bay to Point Reyes.