One unintended consequence of the coronavirus outbreak has a been a resurgence in the use of single-use plastic bags. Derided by many due to their perceived negative effects on the environment, many local and state governments across the US – including the key states of California and New York – have banned use of or begun charging fees for single-use bags in recent years, and leading grocery retailers announced plans to stop giving them away at their stores.
However, a growing number of stores are again giving away single-use plastic bags as part of their efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus. In fact, one state – New Hampshire – has temporarily banned reusable bags, and Maine postponed the implementation of its plastic shopping bag ban. The reason: concerns about the cleanliness of reusable bags. While coronavirus can be removed from plastic surfaces (many plastic shopping bags are made from a high level of recycled plastic content), few shoppers clean their own reusable bags after each use. Thus, to minimize concerns about coronavirus spreading via cross-contamination, retailers are encouraging and again supplying single-use plastic bags.
While the long-term effect of these efforts remain unclear – no one is sure how hygienic practices will change as the virus becomes less of a threat – in the short term, at least, demand for single-use plastic bags is expected to rise.
This presents an opportunity for plastic bag manufacturers to reargue their position that plastic shopping bags – which are readily recyclable (even if the recycling rate remains low) and often made with high post-consumer recycled content – are the more sustainable option compared to polypropylene reusable bags, which are not recyclable. However, now they are adding the hygiene angle. In fact, the Plastics Industry Association has already requested that the US Department of Health and Human Services endorse plastic bags as the safest choice during this pandemic.
To counter that argument and support what had been the increasing consumer habit of carrying reusable bags, the reusable bag industry will need to educate consumers about adequate bag cleaning measures and ensure that the bags are able to withstand frequent cleaning cycles.
For more information, see The Freedonia Group’s Retail Bags report as well as total coverage of the Plastics and Packaging industries. Freedonia Custom Research is also available for questions requiring tailored market intelligence.