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Plastic waste surges as coronavirus prompts restaurants to use more disposable packaging

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As the country re-opens after months of lockdowns, consumers and restaurants have become more dependent on single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils due to health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the start of the outbreak, cities and states were making some progress on banning plastic bags, shifting away from single-use plastic — which ends up sitting in the ocean — to paper or reusable products.

But now, cities and states have delayed or rolled back those bans on plastic bags in fear that reusable products will spread disease. Many retailers are banning customers from bringing reusable bags. And municipalities are scaling back recycling operations due to health concerns.

The surge in single-use plastic is a major blow to the fight against plastic pollution, which is projected to increase by 40% in the next decade, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund.

The problem is especially apparent in the restaurant industry and its increased reliance on food delivery services. Many restaurants, even those that were curbing plastic waste prior to the pandemic, are not limiting the amount of plastic involved in takeout orders.

For instance, popular chain Just Salad was producing reusable bowls that saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year. When the pandemic hit the chain, the company immediately halted the program, shuttered restaurants and pivoted to delivery and pickup — both of which meant using only disposable packaging.

“The environmental fallout is definitely real,” said Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer.

The shift by the salad chain is similar to that of many popular restaurants when the pandemic hit, including Starbucks and Dunkin’, which stopped letting customers use reusable mugs.

Green Restaurant Association CEO Michael Oshman said that it’s too early to predict how much more waste has been generated due to the pandemic.

But most local economies don’t have the infrastructure in place for reusable or compostable takeout packaging. And environmentalists warn the pandemic threatens to scare consumers away from reusable products just as progress was being made.

“The plastic industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to try to convince people that single use plastic is necessary to keep us safe, and that reusables are dirty and dangerous,” said John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at Greenpeace. “The fact that neither of these things is supported by the best available science was irrelevant.”

“Exploitation of Covid-19 fears ultimately made people less safe, distracting attention from the need to focus on the risk of airborne transmission and critical measures like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing,” he added.