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In the Loop

The pandemic is changing the dialogue about reusable packaging

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There is no evidence that reusable bags, cups or containers contribute to the spread of the novel coronavirus any more or any less than their single-use counterparts.

Whether intended for one, two or 200 uses, theoretically every vessel or satchel, under the right conditions, could carry or transmit something. Just like our clothes, countertops and keyboards, packaging is made from materials, and consumers must abide by sanitation best practices and health and safety guidelines. 

Yet, from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York, municipalities are temporarily repealing bans on single-use plastic bags and prohibiting reusables in grocery stores and food service settings to help reduce contamination and flatten the curve. What gives? 

On one hand, there’s caution. Consumers are erring on the side of "safe over sorry" amid global uncertainty, opting to avoid any possible source of transmission. And particularly when it comes to vulnerable populations and frontline workers, I see no room for judging any extra precautions individuals might take.

On the other hand, there’s a more nefarious narrative unfolding that has nothing to do with citizen well-being. A number of journalists have documented how the plastics industry is actively lobbying to suspend single-use plastic bans, propagating misinformation and capitalizing on the fears of lawmakers and consumers alike. 

As lawmakers, consumers and all of us operate from a place of fear, it’s worth revisiting that for many people, reusables don’t feel safe.
In a letter to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, the Plastics Industry Association called for the institution to declare single-use bans a health threat during a pandemic. NGOs including Greenpeace and UPSTREAM have been quick to respond, debunking the supporting studies as irrelevant or misrepresented, the most commonly cited of which was funded by industry trade association the American Chemistry Council in 2011. 

I’m ironically comforted by the drumbeat of industry claims and activist counterclaims, making things feel a little more normal. 

As lawmakers, consumers and all of us operate from a place of fear, it’s worth revisiting that for many people, reusables don’t feel safe. Regardless whether this doubt has been exacerbated by industry encouragement, anecdotal evidence suggests greater reliance on single-use items when the going gets tough. The crux of the matter isn’t about near-term consumer decision-making or reactive pauses on plastic policies. The real question will be about the endurance of new behaviors and the continuation of reusability’s momentum. 

In her book "Dare to Lead," shame researcher Brené Brown, godmother of the anxious and afraid, writes, "Leaders must either invest a reasonable amount of time attending to fears and feelings, or squander an unreasonable amount of time trying to manage ineffective and unproductive behavior." In this case, breaking revived single-use habits will call for a reckoning of these deep-seated fears. The latent distrust of reusables’ safety won’t disappear on its own. 

The dust will settle, single-use plastics bans will be reinstated, and business will return to some version of normal. And when that happens, it will be crucial for companies and organizations doubling down on reusability to acknowledge and overcome these fears if science, sustainability and circularity are to overcome the incumbents. 

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