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Plastic straws coming back, thanks to Covid-19

Disposable plates and drinking straws are staging a comeback in California and across the country. too.


SAN FRANCISCO — First, reusable grocery bags were lost to the coronavirus.

Silverware and ceramic plates may be the next to go.

As restaurants around California — and the country — reopen for full-service dining, the state says reusable tableware is fine with proper precautions. That’s at odds with the CDC, which says disposable dishes, utensils, napkins and tablecloths should be the default.

California recycling and clean water groups are pushing back on the federal guidance, sending a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom this month questioning surface transmission of the virus and blaming plastics and petrochemicals manufacturers for “trying to influence CDC guidelines for reopening food establishments in their favor.”

“The idea that the CDC recommends that single-use disposable items should be preferred seems a little illogical to me,” said Chris Slafter, interim coordinator of Clean Water Action’s ReThink Disposable program, which gives grants to restaurants and advises them on how to replace single-use food-service items with reusables. “Someone still has to handle that item before it goes into a customer’s hand.”

Before the pandemic, California was leading the way on eliminating single-use plastics in various consumer sectors. While environmentalists have long criticized plastic products for polluting oceans and overwhelming landfills, state and local leaders also have sounded the alarm after China in recent years stopped accepting many U.S. plastics for recycling.

But the virus has thwarted efforts to toughen statewide recycling targets. Backers of a ballot initiative to require all packaging to be recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2030 are likely postponing their measure to 2022, while lawmakers with similar goals have shelved their bills.

Meanwhile, plastic use has soared during the pandemic as restaurants have relied on takeout orders to stay afloat and grocery shoppers have reverted to disposable bags over sanitary concerns.

California has long been a leader on reducing plastic use — it was the first in the country to ban single-use plastic bags at large grocery stores — but it hasn’t spread to most other states, with only seven others following suit since then. Environmentalists hope other states will follow California’s lead on how to reopen restaurants and ignore the plastic industry’s lobbying on the federal level for officials to endorse single-use plastics during the pandemic.

“California is a good model,” said Rachael Coccia, plastic pollution manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s really going to be something [where] states have the power to make those types of decisions.”

Her organization is trying to get ahead of the issue, because how restaurants act now is likely to be the norm for a while.

Surfrider is reaching out to the 630 restaurants that are part of its network of “ocean friendly restaurants,” which pledge to exclusively use reusable foodware for on-site dining and provide utensils for takeout orders only upon request. It’s also circulating its own guidelines pointing out that the virus can survive on plastic surfaces.