In a back room at his home in Santa Cruz, California, George Leonard is amassing a stockpile of plastic bags.
Most of the time he eschews the things. As chief scientist at Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit based in Washington, DC, Leonard spends his time advocating against single-use plastics that can clog up waterways, suffocate wildlife, and take centuries to decompose in landfills.
But that was in the Before Times. Since the Covid-19 pandemic upended life across the globe, ravaging economies and bringing entire health care systems to their knees, everyone is being forced to compromise. Retailers are banning consumers from bringing in their own reusable bags, cities and states are rolling back or delaying single-use plastic bans, and municipalities are scaling back recycling operations, with hygiene fears underlying it all.
With plastic production already projected to increase by 40 percent over the next decade, campaigners like Leonard fear the pandemic could unravel hard-fought measures to pare back the 8 million metric tons of plastic that enters our oceans every year.
The signs so far haven’t been reassuring: Customers at Target, for instance, are no longer able to bring in their own bags “out of an abundance of caution, and until further notice,” a spokesperson told The Goods, using an oft-repeated phrase. The retailer’s in-store recycling kiosks are similarly on hiatus. In early March, coffee juggernaut Starbucks announced that its baristas would no longer accept customer-proffered mugs. Dunkin’ (née Donuts) quickly followed suit.
One by one, the coronavirus knocked long-planned measures off course. In April, New York state announced that its plastic bag ban, which was poised to take effect May 15, would be postponed to mid-June at the earliest. Massachusetts, Maine, and Oregon are deferring similar state laws. New Hampshire has required all grocers to “temporarily transition” to single-use paper or plastic bags only. Even San Francisco, one of the first US cities to outlaw disposable plastic bags in 2007, issued an edict at the end of March preventing businesses from “permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.” Grocers and retailers in the Golden State are no longer required to charge the previously mandatory 10 cents per disposable bag. And if stores want to stop accepting recyclable bottles, they’re free to do so.