In a scientific opinion article published on June 15, 2020, in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T), authors Robert Hale and Bongkeun Song of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science discuss the scientific evidence and environmental regulations related to single-use plastics and COVID-19. The authors point out that the US has no federal regulations restricting the use of single-use plastics. The few state and local municipal efforts focused on this problem have come under pressure from plastic manufacturers who put forward safety concerns related to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Industry associations in the US and Europe have sent letters to public authorities urging them to ease or pause existing single-use plastics restrictions (FPF reported), and the article reports that these stakeholders have criticized the safety of reusable bags.
The article by Hale and Song specifically reviews a statement an industry association sent authorities arguing that “study after study after study have shown that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store, and live on surfaces for up to 3 days.” Therefore, the association called for the authorities to “…speak out against bans on these products (single-use plastics) as a public safety risk.” The authors write that “the three scientific studies cited in the [industry association] letter to support the premise that SARS-CoV-2 transmission can be facilitated by incidental contact with reusable bags in grocery stores merit scrutiny” and note that “none of the three studies investigated the presence, survival, or infectivity of any coronavirus family members.” The article then goes on to review the experimental setup used within each of the three studies.
Based on the significantly reduced survival of the virus on dry surfaces, the authors expect that human-to-human contact and recently contaminated surfaces would be a much more likely vector for spreading the virus than the infrequent handling of reusable bags. However, “if single-use options are desired, paper bags at the checkout may be incrementally safer than plastic due to shorter SARS-CoV half-lives on these porous materials.” In conclusion, they write that the three scientific studies cited by the industry association “to support their premise that reusable grocery bags place people at substantial risk to SARS-CoV-2 infection are of questionable applicability.”
Hale, R.C. and Song, B. (June 8, 2020). “Single-Use Plastics and COVID-19: Scientific Evidence and Environmental Regulations.” Environmental Science and Technology.