Plastic bags are back — at least temporarily — as businesses and consumers shift to single-use plastic products while they worry about the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Numerous cities and states have temporarily delayed or rescinded bans and taxes on single-use plastics and plastic bags. Others banned the use of reusable bags. 

Some grocery store chains are prohibiting reusable bags as well, citing concerns about contamination from the virus, which has been found to potentially remain viable for up to a day on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel. Companies such as Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts stopped refilling customers’ reusable mugs. And inside their homes, people have stocked up on bottled water and cleaning supplies in plastic packaging. 

All these changes signal an uptick in the use of certain types of plastic across the country, experts and environmental groups say. 

But even while some accuse the plastics industry of exploiting the crisis to undo plastic bag bans, environmentalists hope the turn to disposable products will be temporary.

Rachel Meidl, an energy and environmental expert from Rice University's Baker Institute, described a change in consumer habits including “panic shopping” for cleaning products that may come in plastic packaging and contribute to overall waste and plastic use. 

Waste management companies are “reporting a drastic increase in residential volumes; however, commercial tonnage has dramatically dropped due to closing of businesses,” Meidl said in an email, explaining the overall increase in waste includes plastic products. “The increase in residential waste volumes can be attributed to more individuals staying home and cleaning out their homes and use and disposal of excess material obtained through panic purchasing.”

Even if before the pandemic consumers opted for environmentally friendly options, she said for some, “covid-19 has now challenged this perspective.” 

Environmental groups have pointed fingers at plastics industry lobbying efforts as one reason plastic products are making a comeback in stores.

Politico obtained a March letter the Plastics Industry Association sent to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, urging him to speak out against bag bans and to make a statement on the “health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics.”

Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign director John Hocevar called it “cynical opportunism.”

“The industry exploited the covid emergency to scare people about reusable bags, so we’re seeing more single-use plastic bags right now,” he said. “…It seems just opportunistic fearmongering that might not make anyone safer.” 

Hocevar and other groups say there's no evidence single-use plastics are safer than other products. “Right now, the data indicate that the coronavirus actually persists longer on plastics than on other materials," the Ocean Conservancy wrote in a blog post. "…[T]here are no data to indicate that reusable bags are any more contaminated than other surfaces in public areas — including the checkout counter at grocery stores, where single-use plastic bags are usually stored and handled by any number of people.” 

But proponents of plastic bags say bringing reusable totes into stores is an “unnecessary risk” for grocery store workers.

“There’s no doubt that if you’re bringing an item of any sort – in most cases, reusable bags are the most obvious thing – the question is where has it been and has it been washed,” said Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance, an arm of the Plastics Industry Association. “I think unfortunately, the situation we find ourselves in has greatly raised the issues of hygiene and of sanitizing items and of just cross-contamination as a whole.”

In some places, consumers may not have a choice but to opt for more plastic. 

In California, where a single-use plastic bag ban passed in 2016, Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) announced an executive order Thursday to allow stores to provide disposable plastic bags to customers for 60 days. San Francisco, the first major city to outlaw single-use plastic bags in 2007, banned reusable bags to try to curb the virus's spread. An update last month to the city health department’s shelter-in-place guidelines required stores to restrict customers from bringing their “own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.”

Massachusetts also temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags and ordered stores not to charge for plastic or paper bags. Maine delayed the state's planned ban on single-use bags until Jan. 15, 2021. In Philadelphia, Mayor Jim Kenney (D) also delayed the city’s bag ban until the beginning of next year.

“This is not an announcement we want to make during Earth Week. We know the climate crisis and plastic pollution remain two very serious threats to our planet and society,” Kenney said last week.

But some environmental groups aren't concerned about short-term choices in an already high-stress time.

“There are higher-priority things to be thinking about right now; the number one priority is keeping ourselves and our families and communities safe,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “I’m not going to lose any sleep over increased plastic packaging here or there in the short term. We’re in a new world. It’s what I perceive to be a temporary new world.”

He added: “I don’t think we’ll have difficulty getting back to a place where people are bringing their own bags and mugs and I don’t see any change in the overall trajectory of increased reusables.”

Still, some environmental groups lamented the suspension of hard-won bans meant to reduce plastic pollution. Environmental activists point to plastic waste that makes its way into oceans and can be lethal to marine life, and research that shows plastics can release planet-warming greenhouse gases as they degrade. 

Seaholm said his group has never pushed for a ban on reusable bags. “There will come a time when perhaps this changes back. But at the moment, there’s no reason to bring those items into the store and more importantly to place them on the conveyor belt, bagging area, cross-contaminating from one thing to the next,” he said. 

When restrictions start to ease, Hocevar said it will be critical to return to sustainable habits.

“The science on the impacts of plastics on the environment and the increasingly on human health is so clear that there’s no question we will continue to move away from single-use plastic,” he said.

But he acknowledged the pandemic “will lead corporations and policymakers to have to work a little harder to make sure the public is aware that reusable systems are safe.”

Meidl said any long-term changes in people’s habits will in part depend on their worries and whether there are continued restrictions around certain products.

“[P]eople will have an increased awareness of hygiene and continue to take precautionary measures until they feel the risk is low enough to resume their normal activities,” she said.

Oil watch

The Trump administration is scrambling to contain the energy market crisis. 

The oil industry in the United States is in trouble. It's facing dropping crude oil prices, excess supplies and a dearth of space to store that excess. An oil services company Monday declared bankruptcy. 

Now, as a fleet of Saudi oil-carrying vessels heads to the Gulf of Mexico, Republicans are pressuring the White House to come up with a plan to help stop the tankers from adding to the global oversupply, The Washington Post's Steven Mufson reports

A message from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) on the flotilla of tankers:

“The United States routinely imports small amounts of Saudi oil, which helps U.S. refiners optimize their facilities for different grades of oil,” Mufson writes. “But the new wave of tankers from the Saudi kingdom will arrive as President Trump is being pressed to do something to aid U.S. oil and gas companies and help navigate an oil glut caused by the coronavirus.” 

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said the administration is “considering government loans to help out the industry, an extreme step to try to limit more economic damage. Markets, however, are moving faster than the administration. Not only did the price of for June delivery drop to about $13, but the price of oil for delivery as late as September also fell, a sign that traders lack confidence in a sharp recovery.”

The oil glut is bound to increase. 

Investors predict the oversupply will ramp up even after the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and Russia pledged to cut production by 9.7 million barrels a day. 

There's too much oil and nowhere to put it.

Oil traders are booking pricey vessels normally meant for domestic shipments to store the extra oil or send shipments overseas. 

“Several shippers said they have started to book Jones Act (JA) vessels for foreign voyages or to store refined products,” Reuters reports. “The century-old Jones Act requires that vessels traveling between domestic ports be owned and operated by U.S. crews, and they are generally more expensive than other vessels.”

The use of such vessels is a “sign of the energy industry’s desperation for places to park petroleum amid a 30% drop in worldwide demand.” 

What's next for this ongoing oil crisis? 

“Negative oil prices, ships dawdling at sea with unwanted cargoes, and traders getting creative about where to stash oil,” Bloomberg News reports. “The next chapter in the oil crisis is now inevitable: great swathes of the petroleum industry are about to start shutting down.” 

Coronavirus fallout

Democratic lawmakers are questioning the plan to reopen some national parks. 

Trump's announcement that his administration was preparing to reopen shuttered national parks fueled fears about more infections among park workers, visitors and nearby residents. 

Now, a group of Democrats from the House Natural Resources Committee is calling for more information about what a reopening would look like.

“In the face of this unprecedented crisis, it is crucial that any decisions to reopen national parks and other public land sites prioritize the health and safety of visitors, employees, and local communities and that they are guided by directives from public health experts and local officials,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt. They called for details about a timeline for reopening parks, documents about how the department will determine when to reopen or keep open sites, and documents detailing consultation with scientists, local, state and tribal officials on reopening decisions, among other requests.

In a statement to the Hill, Interior Department official Conner Swanson said the “health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners continues to be our highest priority." 

California's beaches have become a point of contention.

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) chided the state's residents who flocked to beaches over the particularly warm weekend, skirting the statewide stay-at-home order. He suggested increased enforcement of the order may be necessary, the Los Angeles Times reports. Beaches were open in Orange and Ventura counties but closed in Los Angeles County. 

Beaches in California attracted large crowds and protesters on April 25 despite the state's stay-at-home order. (The Washington Post)

“This virus doesn’t take the weekends off,” Newsom said during a briefing. “The only thing that will set us back is people stopping to practice physical distancing and appropriate social distancing. That’s the only thing that’s going to slow down our ability to reopen this economy.” 

Tesla won’t call back some workers to its California plant.

A Tesla paint department supervisor told employees there’s no reason to come in after the company told some employees to return this week to its factory in Fremont, Calif. But it’s not clear “whether select workers in other parts of the plant are still being asked to report back this week,” Bloomberg News reports.

Power plays

Dozens of Democrats in the House and Senate have joined a lawsuit over power plant rollbacks. 

The more than 70 Democrats filed a brief late last week to challenge the finalized rule by the Environmental Protection Agency to repeal the Clean Power Plan, a key Obama climate rule meant to target coal plants. 

“We joined with our colleagues to file this brief because the Clean Air Act and its amendments granted EPA authority with significant flexibility to address unforeseen air pollution challenges, including climate change,” Reps. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) and Paul D. Tonko (D-N.Y.) wrote in a statement about the brief. “We will continue to oppose this Administration’s willful misinterpretations of environmental laws that seek to justify rolling back critical public health protections and undermine future Administrations’ ability to safeguard our environment and the American people.” 

Climate and liberal groups want Joe Biden to distance himself from Larry Summers. 

In an online petition, Justice Democrats and youth climate activist group Sunrise Movement called for support to press the presumptive Democratic nominee to cut ties with Summers, who acts as an informal campaign adviser, E&E News reports

“Larry Summers' legacy is advocating for policies that contributed to the skyrocketing inequality and climate crisis we're living with today,” the groups wrote

“Summers, a longtime operative, rose through the Reagan, Clinton and Obama administrations until he was halted in 2013 when Democratic senators, including some moderates like then-North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, tanked his bid to become chairman of the Federal Reserve,” according to E&E. “Democratic senators cited many of the same concerns that progressive are raising now: Summers has a history of advocating policies that prioritize deregulation and deficit reduction over direct government intervention.”