July 27, 2020

Policy in the Pandemic: Are Governments Pushing the Pause Button on Responses to Plastic Pollution?

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

By Michelle Nowlin, Zoie Diana, Amy Pickle, and John Virdin

Marine plastic pollution is widely acknowledged as a global problem that requires cooperation from a wide range of groups: governments, producers, consumers, and researchers. By virtue of their core regulatory powers, governments play a primary role in solving this problem.

We recently conducted a global review to see if and how governments have responded to plastic pollution. We found a clear upward trend over the last decade in the number of policies and laws enacted to reduce plastic pollution—at global, regional and national levels. For example, prior to 2000, five binding international treaties were reached that are applicable to the plastic pollution problem, but during the following 20 years, countries agreed to 28 non-binding and applicable polices. Similarly, national governments have increasingly introduced relevant policies, mainly focused on plastic carrier bag pollution. And while we have not been able to measure them worldwide, there are numerous reports citing examples of local regulations enacted to address some form of plastics (typically bans or fees on bags). The results are available in an online, searchable Plastics Policy Inventory that stores almost 300 policy documents from 2000 to mid-2019.

A Pause on Government Responses
From municipal regulations enacted in the 2000s (Fromer, 2010), to the United Nations’ “war on ocean plastic” and the launch of the #CleanSeas campaign in 2017, the problem has risen on governments’ agendas (Carlini and Kleine, 2018). The U.N. Oceans Conference, scheduled for this June, was expected to feature a wide range of additional commitments from governments to address plastic pollution, with perceived momentum for action. But the pandemic has disrupted the momentum, raising fears that plastic pollution will increase, because of increased consumption of single-use plastic items (e.g., bags, disposable cutlery, and takeout containers) and suspension of plastic pollution reduction policies.

Our observations indicate that the pandemic’s impact on international and national efforts to reduce pollution is complex. For example, the European Union ban on some single-use plastics will continue despite calls to suspend it, and in July, the E.U. proposed a levy on plastic waste to help fund national pandemic recovery efforts. The United Kingdom has delayed its ban on plastic straws until October. While Senegal’s ban on most single-use plastics took effect in April, it has relaxed application of the law in response to the pandemic. The increase in improper disposal of personal protective equipment has led France to consider increasing fines for littering, which could decrease the amount of plastic pollution generally.

The Case of Local Government Responses in the U.S.
However, it now seems that the pandemic has pushed the pause button on local governments’ momentum, particularly if we look at the case of single-use plastics in the United States. Since March, state and local governments across the country have rolled back policies meant to reduce the use of single-use plastic bags. Governments have delayed new bag bans and fees, suspended existing policies, and in some places banned the use of reusable bags altogether. Notably, California and Massachusetts suspended single-use bag bans, and Maine and New York delayed the adoption of new bans. New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Illinois prohibited the use of reusable bags. The Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner rescinded the state’s orders in June in favor of revised guidelines for groceries and pharmacies that don’t include restrictions on single-use plastic bags.

In parallel, the pandemic has focused dialogue in the U.S. on the role of single-use plastic products in preventing transmission of the novel coronavirus. For example, in March, the Plastics Industry Association (PIA) sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stating that reusable bags posed a health risk and that single-use bags were the “most sanitary choice.” In response, scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science have criticized the studies cited and questioned their relevance to the pandemic. In July, the president and CEO of the PIA testified before the House Subcommittee on Environment that single-use plastic can be used to fight the coronavirus and “plastic saves lives.”

Driving the Debate: The Emerging Science of Reusable Plastics and COVID-19 Risk

The pause observed in the U.S. reflects the debate on the risk of COVID-19 transmission from reusable materials (i.e., surface transfer of the virus that causes COVID-19). Evidence to date suggests that the virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily spread person-to-person, not through surface transfer. More than 125 public health experts recently issued a statement that reusables, including bags, are safe during the pandemic when basic hygiene is used. The survivability and potential infectivity of the virus depends on many factors—such as bag material, the viral load deposited on the bag, the washing habits of the user, and temperature of bag storage—but so far research is consistent in suggesting that the virus can survive on both plastic and cloth for days. Common-sense measures that will reduce risk include washing or disinfecting bags, storing bags away from members of the household, washing hands and wearing masks when handling bags, and bagging one’s own groceries.

At the same time, single-use plastic bags carry their own potential risks associated with COVID-19. In addition to becoming a vector for transmission between clerk and consumer, bags could pose risks to the public if they are disposed of improperly and become litter contaminated with the virus. For example in surveys of litter in streams around Durham, NC, plastic film—including shopping bags and their fragments—constituted the majority of litter found. In addition, communities near plastic manufacturing facilities experience high rates of respiratory illnesses, and people living along industrial corridors, where those manufacturing facilities are located, have disproportionately high rates of death from COVID-19.

Of course, as new information on COVID-19 transmission emerges and the pandemic passes, we would expect local government responses in the U.S. to change. U.S. municipalities have the opportunity to reassess risk and refine best practices for preventing COVID-19 and reducing the use of single-use plastic bags.

About the Authors

Michelle Nowlin is clinical professor of law at Duke Law School and the Nicholas School of the Environment and co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

Zoie Diana is a Ph.D. student studying plastic pollution in the Marine Science and Conservation and Environmental Health and Toxicology departments at Duke University and is a former student consultant at the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic.

Amy Pickle is director of the State Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School.

John Virdin is director of the Ocean and Coastal Policy Program at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.

The Big Questions

To continue the conversation on this week's topic, here are a few questions for further consideration and study:

  1. On a global level, will we continue to see increased government action to address plastic pollution, or will the pandemic change the calculus?
  2. How will the pandemic affect plastic production and particularly single-use plastic consumption driving the pollution problem?
  3. How will consumers perceive risk of single-use vs. reusable plastics?

What to Know for This Week

  • A working paper by researchers at American University's Center for Environmental Policy found a 13% increase in pollution on average in counties with more industrial facilities, compared to those with fewer, since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency relaxed civil enforcement of environmental regulations in March. The paper's results show the increased pollution increases the conditional COVID-19 death rate by 19.1% and the case rate by 38.8% increase. An E&E News article about the paper noted a possible connection between exposure to air pollution and vulnerability to COVID-19 has been "a subject of intense interest in scientific and public health circles."
  • Governments might be able to prevent future pandemics by investing as little as $22 billion a year in programs to curb wildlife trafficking and stem the destruction of tropical forests, a new analysis by an international team of scientists and economists shows. Compared to the $2.6 trillion already lost to COVID-19, and the more than 600,000 deaths the virus has caused so far, that annual investment represents an exceptional value, argued the team, which was led by scientists at Princeton and Duke universities. Authors included Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation ecology at the Duke Nicholas School of the Environment, and Binbin Li, assistant professor of environmental science at Duke Kunshan University.
  • The Washington Post reported Thursday that as many as 1 million North Carolina families have fallen behind on utility bills as a result of the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data collected by the NC Utilities Commission show residential and non-residential customers collectively missed or were late on $258 million in payments as of June 30. The Post wrote that some NC cities that own or operate their own utilities "have been forced to absorb these losses, creating a dire situation in which the government’s attempt to save people from the financial brink instead has pushed municipal coffers to their own breaking point." (For more on the effects of utility shutoff moratoria, read the June 29 and July 6 editions of "Policy in the Pandemic.")
  • Since restrictions have been eased, state and national parks have seen a surge in visitors seeking recreation during the pandemic. The increased traffic has created a host of concerns for surrounding communities, particularly Native Americans who have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19, according to an article in Time. The parks themselves have seen increased trash, graffiti, and illegal all-terrain vehicle use that appears to be driven by first-time visitors. (For more on park access during the pandemic, read the July 20 edition of "Policy in the Pandemic.")


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