Pandemic deals blow to plastic bag bans, plastic reduction

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In this Sunday, March 29, 2020, photo, a sign posted at an entrance to a 365 Whole Foods store advises customers not to use their own bags while shopping in Lake Oswego, Ore. Just weeks earlier, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee. Grocery clerks are nervous that the virus could linger on reusable fabric bags and their unions are backing them up with demands to end plastic bag fees and suspend bag bans. The plastics industry has seized the moment, lobbying to overturn existing bans on single-use plastics. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

PORTLAND, Ore. – Just weeks ago, cities and even states across the U.S. were busy banning straws, limiting takeout containers and mandating that shoppers bring reusable bags or pay a small fee as the movement to eliminate single-use plastics took hold in mainstream America.

What a difference a pandemic makes.

In a matter of days, hard-won bans to reduce the use of plastics — and particularly plastic shopping sacks — across the U.S. have come under fire amid worries about the virus clinging to reusable bags, cups and straws.

Governors in Massachusetts and Illinois have banned or strongly discouraged the use of reusable grocery bags. Oregon suspended its brand-new ban on plastic bags this week, and cities from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have announced a hiatus on plastic bag bans as the coronavirus rages.

Add to that a rise in takeout and a ban on reusable cups and straws at the few coffee stores that remain open, and environmentalists worry COVID-19 could set back their efforts to tackle plastic pollution for years.

“People are scared for their lives, their livelihood, the economy, feeding their loved ones, so the environment is taking a back seat,” said Glen Quadros, owner of the Great American Diner & Bar in Seattle.

Quadros has laid off 15 employees and seen a 60% decline in business since Seattle all but shut down to slow the pandemic. For now, he's using biodegradable containers for takeout and delivery, but those products cost up to three times more than plastic — and they're getting hard to find because of the surge in takeout, he said.

“The problem is, we don’t know what’s in store,” Quadros said. “Everyone is in the same situation."