Covid-19 Made Single-Use Plastics Problem Worse, But Could Drive Solutions

A Giant Eagle Inc. Market District supermarket is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019.

Allison Ferrand | Bloomberg | fake images

In early 2020, Giant Eagle began a company-wide mission to phase out all single-use plastic bags. The Pittsburgh-based grocery chain stopped offering thin, disposable bags in the checkout area at about 40 stores. He posted signs in parking lots reminding shoppers to bring reusable bags and offered discounts for those who did.

The efforts cut 20 million single-use plastic bags, the company said, which can litter parks, get stuck in trees or end up in landfills.

But in mid-March, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Shoppers piled food, soap, and toilet paper on carts. Giant Eagle installed Plexiglass screens near cashiers, tagged one-way aisles to encourage social distancing, and returned plastic bags to all stores, asking customers to keep them at home.

“We fully recognized that we took a step back, as did other retailers,” said Dan Donovan, the company’s senior director of corporate communications and a member of the team driving the grocer’s environmental efforts. He said safety was a priority as employees and customers were concerned about Covid and scientists sought to better understand how the virus spread.

Similar patterns have developed across the country. The pandemic not only disrupted the daily rhythm of work, school and life. It complicated efforts by retailers to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastics, from grocery bags to plastic forks. It also inspired behavioral changes that drove more packaging consumption as more people shopped online, bought disposable protective gear like masks and gloves, and turned to pre-packaged or packaged goods and other grocery items in the store.

One year later, single-use plastics are still a ubiquitous part of retail, even as major players like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and CVS Health commit to transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.

“For many of us, the pandemic has changed our relationship with single-use plastic in uncomfortable ways,” said John Hocevar, director of the oceans campaign for Greenpeace USA, an environmental nonprofit organization. “The new types of useless plastic packaging piling up in our homes and filling our trash cans are leading many people, including policy makers and corporate executives, to think more about reuse.”

Plastic is one of the main drivers of climate change around the world. Although companies that produce and sell plastic promote recycling as a solution, less than 10% of American plastic waste is recycled. Research also shows that the US generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world.

There is the science of what we are learning and then there are people’s feelings, emotions and fears, independent of science in some cases.

Dan Donovan

Giant Eagle Speaker

The hard-fought plastic bag bans were overturned or suspended at the start of the health crisis. Maine and Oregon postponed statewide bans. California Governor Gavin Newsom lifted a ban in his state that had been in effect since 2016. And in New York, Covid-19 cases spiked shortly after the state ban on single-use plastic bags It will go into effect on March 1, delaying implementation for about seven months and slowing efforts to change deep-seated habits.

Covid-19 also galvanized efforts by plastic lobbyists to challenge and overturn the bans.

Consulting firm Wood Mackenzie estimated that US demand for flexible packaging, most of which is single-use plastic, increased 4% to 5% compared to the previous year following the panic buying of the first closures. of Covid. The firm expects demand to grow 4.5% a year over the next five years.

“These companies should put plans in place now for what a world beyond single-use plastics will look like,” said Hocevar. “The pandemic cannot be an excuse to exacerbate another public health crisis.”

A worker behind a partial protective plastic screen and wearing a mask and gloves as she checks on a customer at Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | fake images

‘Go back to the roadmap’

Over the past year, public health officials have debunked fears that Covid-19 is spreading through contaminated surfaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus is transmitted primarily from person to person. More than 125 health experts have issued guidance on how reusable items can be used safely during the pandemic.

New York began enforcing the plastic bag ban in the fall. Some retailers, like Giant Eagle, say they want to resume sustainability efforts. Others, including Amazon-owned Whole Foods and Texas grocery store HEB, are bringing back food bars where customers serve themselves rather than picking up from prepackaged plastic containers.

Donovan said Giant Eagle wants to “get back on the roadmap we had projected to be on more than a year ago.” In early summer, if not earlier, the grocer will remove single-use plastic bags from some stores again and plans to expand them to all 470 locations over time to meet a commitment to eliminate them entirely by 2025.

But first, Donovan said Giant Eagle must win over buyers, a potentially tougher sale after a year that may have taken germ awareness in. When the company surveyed customers in the fall, 60% said they didn’t feel safe bringing reusable bags or seeing other customers bring them.

“There is the science of what we are learning and then there are the feelings, emotions and fears of people, regardless of the science in some cases,” said Donovan, adding that the company would potentially incentivize customers with grocery discounts. or fuel. at their gas stations.

When you reopen hot cafes and bars, you are also considering how to remove other plastics like straws or utensils. And it’s working with manufacturers on more sustainable packaging for private label products.

You also want a part of your fast-growing business to be greener. Online orders quadrupled during the height of the pandemic and have stabilized, but at twice the pre-pandemic rate, he said. He plans to offer shoppers the option to get all the paper bags, rather than plastic, when they pick up the groceries from the curb or deliver them to him.

Nate Faust was inspired to start his new company, Olive, after seeing the large amount of cardboard and other packaging in his neighborhood trash.

An attention call

About a dozen retailers, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dollar General and Kroger, have joined an initiative called Beyond the Bag that is led by the innovation arm of an investment firm, Closed Loop Partners. Walmart, Target, and CVS Health are founding members and contributed $ 5 million each.

Kate Daly, CEO of the Center for the Circular Economy in Closed Loop, noted that many of those retailers wrote checks and joined the consortium during the global crisis.

“It was a clear indication that none of our corporate partners are putting a pause on sustainability,” he said.

However, environmental groups have argued that corporate initiatives to reduce and recycle plastic waste have been insufficient, especially as plastics manufacturers increase production. Environmental defenders are pushing for legislative measures, including the passage of the Law to get rid of plastic pollution.

“Big brands have made promises about recycled content for decades, but the pollution crisis is getting worse daily,” Hocevar said. “It is time to end greenwashing and take real action to end our reliance on polluting single-use plastics.”

Daly acknowledged that the pandemic has had its setbacks, but said it has also opened people’s eyes to the need for sustainability. As people spent more time at home, they saw their trash piling up with individual food wrappers or discarded bubble wrap from online deliveries, he said. Companies saw the vulnerability of global supply chains and heard calls to action from activist shareholders, politicians and consumers.

“We need to take the burden off clients and not expect them to be innovative and entrepreneurial, but to offer them a diversity of options that are profitable, inclusive and accessible and also the most sustainable,” he said. “That is what customers expect and demand more and more.”

Last month, Beyond the Bag announced nine winners of a challenge to find alternatives to single-use bags, from compostable bags made with seaweed to a kiosk that allows customers to borrow and return reusable bags.

Daly said shoppers can see retailers testing some of those approaches in stores starting this year.

Even outside of grocery stores, entrepreneurs see the desire for sustainability as a business opportunity that can generate profits, along with goodwill and a healthier planet.

Nate Faust sold his previous company,, to Walmart for $ 3.3 billion. He co-founded the startup with Marc Lore, who recently left the large retailer after leading its e-commerce strategy. Now, Faust has started a company aimed at reducing packaging.

Faust said the idea was born out of his own frustration after seeing the number of discarded boxes in his New Jersey neighborhood.

Her new company, Olive, consolidates clothing purchases across all brands and leaves them at customers’ doorsteps in a reusable bag. It also aims to reduce fuel and pollution by delivering orders once a week instead of several times a day or week. Customers can return items in the same bag.

“More and more consumers are caring about the environment,” he said. “It’s not about making a trade. In fact, this is how they live their lives. As younger generations become a major part of consumer spending, that will become the feature itself.”


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