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People are rethinking single-use plastics during the pandemic

While a lot of attention has been paid to the temporarily cleaner skies many cities are seeing due to coronavirus, the ongoing pandemic may also undo some progress that the sustainability movement saw this year. Just two months ago, New York became the third state in the U.S. to ban single-use plastic bags and now, due to coronavirus fears, people are going back to plastics.

In mid-March, Maine postponed a plastic bag ban that was supposed to go into effect on Earth Day, citing concerns that reusable bags could transmit the virus. Those concerns were echoed on March 31, when New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced a temporary ban on reusable bags, requiring all retail stores go back to singe-use paper or plastics.

“Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, working around the clock to keep New Hampshire families fed,” Sununu said in a statement. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers.”

Fears over reusable bags are understandable while there are still so many unknowns when it comes to coronavirus transmission. Meghan May, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, told the Verge, “We should probably assume that it can be transmitted that way [on reusable bags] until someone demonstrates that it can’t.”

Plastic bags aside, the coronavirus is creating a staggering amount of medical waste. And while this waste is necessary to fight the virus, we could use this time to consider alternatives outside of single-use plastic bags. For example, many grocery stores offer paper alongside plastic, which would be a better option for the environment.

It's understandable that people are currently skeptical of reusable bags. Grocery store workers are essential and deserve all the protection that they can get. But some advocates worry that these temporary bans could become something longer lasting.

“Some people will call it disaster capitalism,” Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace USA, told The Verge. “Using this moment where everything is in chaos and people are legitimately concerned about public health to turn back the clock to go back to a world where plastic is the norm, rather than right now where reusables are becoming the norm in many places.”