The Return of Single-Use Plastics and the Impacts during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Posted on Behalf of  Ruth Hwang

Recently, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a widespread precautionary push back on reusable shopping bags and restrictions against single-use plastics used in grocery stores and food establishments (Silva et al. 2020; Klemes et al. 2020).

Plastic bags and containers, where did we start? 

Polyethylene, including high- and low-density polyethylene, is a type of plastic that is commonly used in packaging materials, especially food packaging (Risch 2009). Low-density polyethylene was the first type to be invented in 1933 and still is commonly used for packaging foods such as bread (Risch 2009). The modern plastic bag, which is made of high-density polyethylene, was first introduced by a Swedish company in 1965 (UN environment programme). During the 1980s, the plastic bag was introduced in the U.S., with major supermarkets such as Kroger and Safeway being among the first to implement their use (UN environment programme). In 2014, over 100 billion single-use plastic bags were consumed just in the U.S. (Wagner 2017). Due to their convenience and durability, plastic bags have soared in popularity since. According to the UN Environment Programme, one million plastic bags were consumed every minute worldwide in 2011. 

What were the “Pre-COVID” legislations on plastic bags? 

In the U.S., there are eight states with restrictions on the use of single-use plastic bags prior to the COVID-19 pandemic (NCSL). These states consist of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont (NCSL).  

  • 2007 – San Francisco was the first city in the U.S. to ban the use of single-use plastic bags (Wagner 2017).  
  • 2016 – The state of California followed suit, with legislation that banned retailers from providing single-use plastic bags (SB-270). The bill, however, allowed for plastic bags to be purchased for a minimum of 10 cent charge (SB-270).  
  • 2017 – 271 local government ordinances have banned or taxed single-use bags in the U.S. (Wagner 2017).  


Source: NCSL 

COVID-19 plastic ban pause  

On March 4, 2020, an executive order was signed by the governor of California that suspended the plastic bag ban for 60 days. This order allowed retail establishments to provide single-use bags free of charge and prohibited the use of reusable bags. 

Implications of increasing single-use plastic bags and containers 

Although temporary, the reversal on the ban of re-usable shopping bags and ban of indoor dining in many cities has increased the use and pollution of single-use plastic bags and take-out food containers across the U.S. and worldwide (Silva et al. 2020; Klemes et al. 2020). The impacts of increasing the volume of plastic use and therefore waste results in the increased emergence of microplastics, a persistent contaminant that has been detected in drinking water sources and aquatic environments (Hale et al. 2020; He et al. 2018). Microplastics contain endocrine disruptors, phthalates, carcinogens, plasticizers, colorants, heat stabilizers, barrier resins, and more, that may pose a hazard to aquatic ecosystems and enter into drinking water sources (Foley et al. 2017; Rani et al. 2015; Erythropel et al. 2014; Koelmans et al. 2019; Wang et al. 2019). Reducing the amount of plastic waste that enters the environment is one way to combat the emergence of potentially harmful microplastics that may lead to unforeseen health consequences. Furthermore, the relaxation of single-use plastics and increased vigilance towards hygiene during the pandemic could shift consumer behavior and impact future usages of plastics post-pandemic (Vanapalli et al. 2020).  

Does scientific data support the assertion that reusable bags increase the spread of SARS-CoV-2? 

Advocates of reverting the ban on single-use plastic bags cite studies that indicate reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria for prolonged periods of time. However, others have questioned this conclusion (Hale et al. 2020; Silva et al. 2020). Notably, no studies to date have measured SARS-CoV-2 contamination or viability on reusable bags, but several have evaluated Norovirus, Escherichia coli, Enterobacteriaceae, Staphylococci, and Listeria monocytogenes contamination (Williams et al. 2011; Repp and Keene. 2012; Barbosa et al. 2019).  

Throughout the pandemic, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has not released any statements against the use of reusable shopping bags. Rather, in April of 2020, the CDC recommended grocery workers to clean hands after handling customers’ reusable grocery bags, and more recently in September, released guidance on running essential errands, which recommended that reusable shopping bags should be cleaned before each use (CDC, Apr. 2020; CDC, Sept. 2020). Similarly, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommend in May 2020, to clean or wash reusable shopping bags before each use (FDA, May 2020). With such guidance, some grocery stores are now permitting customers to bag their own groceries in personal re-usable shopping bags, while others are still not allowing the use of reusable bags and containers (abc10, Jul. 2020). As the pandemic progresses and we continue to see a rise in cases worldwide, the question remains of what short and long-term impacts increased plastic use will have on plastic waste management and sustainability practices. There is a need for businesses to address this public health and sustainability challenge in safe and innovative ways.


Cardno ChemRisk scientists have extensive experience designing and conducting applied research studies addressing human health and ecological impacts from plastic use. Additionally, our COVID-19 support covers a variety of industries (media and television, food and beverage manufacturers, pipeline construction, etc.) and includes assistance in developing and evaluating COVID-19 response plans. Learn more about the ways Cardno ChemRisk can support your business on our website.