(Photo by michaelkowalczyk.eu, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit New York City in the spring, environmental concerns fell to the wayside. Thousands of people were dying from a deadly disease, and the state legislature had bigger things to worry about than enforcing its ban on plastic bags, which was supposed to take effect on March 1. 

But six months in, the pandemic has had an unexpected and lasting effect on the environment, through the proliferation of plastic waste. Across the city, disposable plastic bags are still in use until New York state begins enforcing the ban on October 19, more than seven months after a legal battle with bodega owners and bag manufacturers put the law on hold. And demand for plastic grew as restaurants transitioned to offering takeout during the pandemic, which often required the use of plastic packaging. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sharp increase in plastic waste and pollution, as the need for disposable personal protective equipment grew and recycling slowed. Some recyclers were forced to close due to concerns over worker safety or budget shortfalls, just as the amount of plastic produced and thrown out increased drastically. 

One study found that increases in demand for face masks, medical gloves, and goggles in China during the peak of the pandemic produced approximately 240 tons of medical waste daily, about six times more than before the outbreak. Styrofoam, a non-recyclable plastic, saw a resurgence during the pandemic as manufacturers reported “double-digit percentage sales increases” in the food packaging and health care sectors. 

New York City’s Department of Sanitation saw a 16.9 percent increase in recyclables collected between March and June over the same period last year, although the agency wasn’t able to provide a breakdown of its data between metal, glass and plastic. However, many of the plastic containers used in takeout are made of black plastic, which often is not recycled and instead ends up in out-of-state landfills or is burned in incinerators around the New York City metro area, according to Judith Enck, president of advocacy group Beyond Plastics. 

Moreover, according to Eric Goldstein, the New York City Environment Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, the fossil fuels used in plastic production contribute to global climate change, while the manufacturing process exposes workers to toxins, and the final product — disposable food-and-beverage packaging — contains hazardous chemicals that can leach into the items people consume. 

Meanwhile, New Yorkers produce and discard about 23 billion plastic bags every year, according to the Sanitation Department — many of which have to be recycled separately and often end up in landfills instead. 

“They litter our streets, they hang from our tree branches,” Goldstein said. “They clog storm drains, they end up in our waterways. They are a major contributor to coastal litter. They are breaking into smaller pieces and are sometimes swallowed by marine mammals and cause problems for the coastal ecology.”

At the same time, it’s not entirely clear what impact food delivery has had on plastic use during the pandemic. Grubhub initially saw a decrease in orders when COVID-19 first took hold in New York City “due to residents temporarily moving out of the city and many restaurants pausing their operations,” before recovering in May and June, according to a company spokesperson. Moreover, Grubhub and other services such as Uber Eats give customers the option to opt out of receiving plasticware with their orders. 

In its interim guidelines for reopening restaurants, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommended that businesses “use disposable food service items (utensils, dishes)” and “avoid using food and beverage implements brought in by customers.” Some companies did just that, including Starbucks, which temporarily banned customers from bringing in their own reusable cups in March. 

Many restaurants say the effect of the pandemic on their demand for plastic has been a mixed bag. Meredith Mandel, the director of operations at East Village restaurant Hearth, said that her business had already transitioned to using mainly plant-based materials for packaging and takeout orders, making it easy to stay away from plastics during the pandemic.

“It’s also very important to our client base and to our community,” Mandel said. “We’re very connected to our East Village neighbors, and this is part and parcel with our ethos.” 

Veselka, an East Village mainstay for Ukrainian food, also uses compostable materials for its takeout containers, although co-owner Jason Birchard estimated that the restaurant saw about a 50% increase in plastic bags given with takeout orders during the pandemic. Junior Amigon, manager of Paul’s Da Burger Joint, said that he had doubled his orders for plastic utensils given out to customers since March. 

At the same time, the pandemic led disposable plastic bags, which had been banned in many areas, to make a comeback. Nationwide, some states and municipalities chose to roll back their plastic bag bans or even ban reusable bags out of fears that they could spread COVID-19, which scientists and government agencies have disputed. California, which previously required grocers and retailers to charge 10 cents per disposable bag, temporarily suspended the regulation during the pandemic, although it has since been reinstated. 

New Hampshire required all grocers to “temporarily transition” to single-use paper or plastic bags, while Massachusetts issued guidance to grocery stores in April banning the use of reusable bags, only removing the ban in July. Retail stores such as Target also prevented customers from bringing in their own reusable bags “out of an abundance of caution, and until further notice,” as one Target spokesperson told Vox

The concerns were amplified by the Plastics Industry Association, a trade group, which sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on March 18, arguing that the administration should emphasize the importance of single-use disposable plastics during the pandemic, and that numerous studies “have shown that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria [and] spread them throughout a grocery store.”

Robert Hale, a professor of environmental chemistry at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, called this claim a “misuse of science.” In a paper published in June, Hale wrote that the studies used by the plastics industry did not mention coronaviruses, and instead focused on microbes that are more likely to be transmitted through surface contact, rather than through the air as the novel COVID-19 virus mainly appears to do. As a result, Hale believes the industry’s argument was misleading. 

“Most people wouldn’t go and go find those papers or click on the links to see what they were about,” Hale said. “They say, ‘Obviously the scientists are in agreement with this.’” 

In fact, other scientists largely agree that reusables can be utilized safely during the pandemic. In a statement in June, over 115 health experts from around the world made the case that reusable bags were no more dangerous than single-use disposable plastic bags, so long as they are cleaned regularly and proper health protocols are followed in grocery stores. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has itself stated that there is currently no evidence of food containers or packaging being associated with the spread of COVID-19.

Some grocery stores, including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, allow reusable bags as long as customers bag their own groceries; others have continued handing out plastic bags throughout the pandemic, according to Mike Durant, president of the Food Industry Alliance of New York State, a trade association that represents grocery stores. However, many stores in New York have already transitioned away from plastic bags since the plastic bag ban was put in place, Durant said. 

Many bodegas have continued handing out plastic bags and are asking the state for a reprieve during the pandemic, as buying reusable cloth bags is often not economically feasible for their customers, said Richard Lipsky, who lobbies on behalf of the Bodega and Small Business Association. 

“We generally have a low-income customer base, and it’s been worsened by the economic impact of the pandemic,” Lipsky said. “We don’t need to have a greater expense for our customers.” 

Enforcement of the ban was delayed after plastic bag manufacturers and convenience store owners sued the state in February, arguing that the regulations were “unconstitutional and inconsistent,” as well as a financial burden during the pandemic. But a state judge upheld the ban in August, and New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation announced last week that it would begin enforcing the law on October 19.

Kate Kurera, the deputy director of Environmental Advocates NY, a lobbying organization, feels New Yorkers are prepared for that. “I think we’ve evolved over the summer to a point now where people understand that we can phase out plastic bags safely as well as deal with the coronavirus.”

Update, Sept. 24: This post was revised to include the new date of the plastic bag ban’s implementation.