Skip Navigation

States Suspending Plastic Bag Bans in Response to COVID-19 Pandemic

April 30, 2020

Numerous cities and states with plastic bag bans are suspending these policies in response to public health concerns raised about the safety of alternative reusable bags during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Numerous cities and states which had imposed bans of plastic bags in recent years are suspending these policies in response to public health concerns raised about the safety of alternative reusable bags during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Despite research long indicating reusable bags are likely a vector for diseases, at the behest of environmental lobbyists concerned about plastic pollution to the exclusion of other environmental and public health issues related to bags, a number of cities and states have banned the use of plastic bags in recent years.

Looking for ways to prevent the further spread of COVID- 19 virus, city and state governments are now taking the relative public health benefits of plastic bags versus reusable bags into consideration and suspending their plastic bag prohibitions.

Cities, States Halting Bag Bans

California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and most recently Washington state have banned single-use plastic bags in one form or another. In other states, some cities have enacted local bans on plastic bags.

But now many governors and mayors are reconsidering those bans. For instance, in Maine, a plastic bag ban had been scheduled to take effect on Earth Day, April 22, but Maine Gov. Janet Mills delayed the state’s ban until Jan. 15, 2021. And, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu directed all retailers to use single-use bags for the time being and not allow the use reusable bags in their stores.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the 139 municipalities with restrictions on single-use bags to overturn those laws, telling WBUR, “[f]rom now on, reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans will be lifted.”

In New Jersey, a bill to ban plastic bags statewide failed after the legislature shelved it concerned about its public health impacts, and instead the legislature is now considering legislation to suspend local ordinances many cities in the state have enacted banning plastic bags.

USA Today reports, the state of Oregon, and cities ranging from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have also imposed a hiatus on their bans.

Grocers, Industry Respond Health Risk

To protect the health of their customers and employees, many chain and grocery stores had begun unilaterally limiting or preventing the use of reusable bags in their stores, even before governments acted.

For instance, Albertson’s, Target, and Trader Joe’s, and Target are letting customers use their own bags only if they sack their groceries themselves. Other stores are banning their use entirely.

Plastic bag manufacturers and the plastic industry in general, who have long pointed out plastic bags are sterile, and the least likely form of packaging to retain or spread disease, are now lobbying the federal government to intervene and overturn plastic bag bans nationwide.

“We are asking that the Department of Health and Human Services investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” said Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association CEO in a March 18 letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in a letter dated March 18. “We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk.

“Single-use plastic bags provide a sanitary and convenient way to carry our groceries home while protecting supermarket employees and customers from whatever is lurking on reusable bags,” Radoszewski wrote in a post on the trade group’s website. “As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital. We live longer, healthier and better because of single-use plastics.”

At the local level, the California Grocers Association (CGA) sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom requesting he temporarily suspend the ban on single-use plastic bags as well as the required fee for store-supplied bags.

“This is a laudatory environmental policy, but it is simply not appropriate to expect our employees to handle and load customer’s used grocery bags at this time,” said CGA’s letter.

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hsburnett@heartland.org) is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

Internet Info
H. Sterling Burnett and Pamela Villareal, “H. Sterling Burnett and Pamela Villarreal: Dallas plastic bag ban bad for many reasons,” Dallas Morning News, June 11, 2013; https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2013/06/12/h-sterling-burnett-and-pamela-villarreal-dallas-plastic-bag-ban-bad-for-many-reasons/

Official Connections

California Gov. Gavin Newsom: https://www.gov.ca.gov/; https://govapps.gov.ca.gov/gov40mail/

Maine Gov. Janet Mills: https://www.maine.gov/governor/mills/home; https://www.maine.gov/governor/mills/contact

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker: https://www.mass.gov/orgs/office-of-the-governor; https://www.mass.gov/forms/email-the-governors-office

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu: governor.nh.gov; https://www.governor.nh.gov/contact/index.htm

Author
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is a Heartland senior fellow on environmental policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.
hsburnett@heartland.org