For greens who dream of a waste-free “circular economy,” it’s been hard enough seeing reusable tote bags banned from many grocery stores. But now they must deal with another blow from the Covid-19 pandemic: the shutdown of recycling programs in towns and cities across America.
In at least 30 states, local curbside programs have been suspended or curtailed, and drop-off sites and container-redemption centers have been closed, because of problems related to the coronavirus. Though these programs are more expensive than sending trash to a landfill, they have persisted because of their appeal to voters who believe in recycling’s environmental benefits. Now, however, the grimmer realities of recycling have become apparent. Aside from being a financial burden to towns suddenly facing shortfalls in tax revenue, recycling programs require lots of workers to handle bottles, food containers, and other items used by people—some of whom may have been “shedding” the virus.
Consumers face some risk when they gather their items for curbside bins or take them to drop-off sites, but the biggest danger is to the workers who haul the stuff away or sort it by hand as it moves along conveyor belts at processing facilities. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has warned that the virus poses a “serious and unique risk” to its members in the recycling industry, which already had some of the highest rates of injuries and illness among all sectors.
The recycling trade press has been steadily chronicling its new woes. Dalton, Georgia, one of many towns to suspend its curbside collections, explained that “recycling pickup requires sorting by hand and there are many unknowns about how the virus spreads from surface to surface.” Recycling drop-off centers in Ashland County, Ohio, and Humboldt County, California, were closed for similar reasons. Vermont, which had banned the landfilling of recyclables, is planning to suspend that policy because of concerns about the virus.
Other programs have been shelved because of budgetary concerns, the lack of a market for plastic recyclables, a shortage of protective gear, and other consequences of the pandemic, such as the decision by many prisons to limit the activities of inmates. Waste Dive, a news site that covers the recycling industry, reported that “multiple areas have cited a shortage of incarcerated labor outsourced from local prisons as a key factor” forcing the discontinuation of recycling programs.
Local officials assure citizens that the programs will resume as soon as possible, but Covid-19 and the looming budget deficits should prompt some second thoughts. Yes, recycling does make people feel like they’re helping the planet, but at what cost? Given the minimal environmental benefits—as well as some environmental harms—from recycling, couldn’t local governments find more productive uses for their money? If they want to spend tax dollars on make-work programs for prisoners, couldn’t they create safer and more edifying jobs than sifting through people’s garbage?
Greens will go on fighting to keep the programs, just as they battle to promote reusable tote bags at supermarkets, despite the known health risks. Well before the current crisis, researchers repeatedly demonstrated that tote bags harbor deadly bacteria and viruses, because so few people bother to wash the bags. One study traced an outbreak of viral gastroenteritis to bacteria from a tote bag; another found an increase in bacteria-related illnesses and deaths in San Francisco after the city enacted the nation’s first law banning single-use plastic bags in grocery stores.
Ignoring these risks—and the larger carbon footprints of the tote bags—environmental groups successfully promoted the bags while lobbying cities and states to ban or restrict single-use plastic bags in stores. But now even San Francisco has banned reusable bags for the time being, as have the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as well as some supermarket chains. Other cities and states have suspended their bans on single-use plastic bags and discouraged shopping with reusable bags.
Environmentalists and their media allies have fought back by blaming these new policies on propaganda from the plastic industry and conservatives. An article in the Guardian, “Rightwing thinktanks use fear of Covid-19 to fight bans on plastic bags,” accused conservative groups of “misrepresenting recent studies” about shopping bags. It cited a story of mine in City Journal, “Greening Our Way to Infection,” but the paper did not identify any misrepresentations in the article or offer any rebuttal to the peer-reviewed scientific evidence in it.
Instead, the Guardian quoted a marine biologist from Greenpeace inaccurately suggesting that single-use plastic bags are no safer than reusable ones because the coronavirus can survive on plastic. Indeed, my article cited evidence that viruses can linger for days on plastic as well other surfaces. But the issue is not what a bag is made of—many reusable bags are also made of plastic—but what happens to it after the shopper goes home. The thin plastic bags that greens want to ban are typically reused as trash-bin liners and then discarded. By contrast, reusable ones go back to the supermarket multiple times, often laden with pathogens from the previous trip, or from the subways, restrooms, or other public places the bags are taken.
When a team of environmental-health scientists from the University of Arizona and the Loma Linda University School of Public Health analyzed shoppers’ bags from supermarkets in Arizona and California, they found considerable amounts of bacteria in almost all the reusable bags, including fecal coliform bacteria in half the bags. Their study found no contamination in any of the new plastic bags handed out by the grocery stores.
Greens want to deny it, but there’s no doubt that the safest and easiest way to shop, and to eliminate germs lingering on bags or in food scraps or on recyclables, is to get a new plastic bag at the store and then toss it, along with everything else, into a sturdier plastic garbage bag that can be loaded on a truck and dumped by a machine into a landfill or an incinerator. There’s no need for consumers, workers, prisoners, or anyone else to sift by hand through that garbage—not now, and not after the pandemic is over, either.