Some hard-won laws intended to protect the environment are being temporarily rolled back in the effort to protect people from the coronavirus.
As part of the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker has banned reusable shopping bags at grocery stores and pharmacies and suspended almost 140 local bans on single-use plastic bags.
A number of other states and municipalities across the country, including New Hampshire, Maine, and Chicago, to name a few, have issued orders banning people from toting their cloth shopping bags into stores.
Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, said she cannot find any science to support the prohibitions on reusable bags.
" There is not yet the research to support either reusable bags being a problem or plastic or paper being somehow safer," said Domenitz.
An article in the New England Journal of Medicine said researchers found the coronavirus was viable 72 hours after it was applied to plastic and stainless steel and 24 hours on cardboard. Cloth was not studied.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has no recommendation when it comes to reusable cloth or paper vs. disposable plastic bags during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ann Scales, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said in an email that the order to ban reusable shopping bags was made “out of an abundance of caution” to protect grocery store workers who “could not assess the sanitary level of reusable bags.”
The plastic bag industry is using the coronavirus crisis to try to undo plastic bag bans, according to the New York Times. An industry campaign warns reusable shopping bags are “petri dishes for bacteria and carriers of harmful pathogens.”
In Massachusetts, where 139 cities and towns regulate single-use plastic bags, environmental groups have tried unsuccessfully for years to get a statewide ban.
Domenitz believes people will be more supportive of efforts to reduce plastic litter and waste once the coronavirus crisis is over.
"Having gone through weeks, or longer, of having to conserve and think much more about everything we are using, I actually think this is going to put wind behind the sails of reducing waste," said Domenitz.
Another environmental law that has been put on hold in Massachusetts during the state of emergency involves the beverage container deposit system. Although the five-cent per bottle and can deposit is still being charged, stores are not being required to take back the containers.
Although the science may not support it, Domenitz said there is a legitimate concern about overburdening grocery store workers.
" Just taking into account the stress grocery stores are under and they need to be focused on stocking the shelves and keeping their employees safe," said Domenitz.
On the federal level, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is suspending enforcement of some environmental laws during the pandemic. Ben Hellerstein, state director of Environment Massachusetts, said the move is “reckless.”
" The EPA has announced they will essentially stop enforcing key provisions of our federal environmental laws including the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act," said Hellerstein. "These actions are a step in the wrong direction and really put our health and our communities at risk."
Hellerstein called on Congress to use its oversight authority to rescind the EPA policy.