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Environmentalists say coronavirus fears have led to major setback on plastic pollution

Call to return to reuseable cups and bags
WATCH: Call to return to reuseable cups and bags

Environmentalists are warning that safety concerns around the novel coronavirus have caused a significant setback in the movement to reduce single-use plastic.

The Surfrider Foundation says fears of possible transmission in the early days of the pandemic saw many businesses shy away from reusable bags and containers, falling back to traditional disposables.

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But Surfrider Foundation Canada spokesperson Lilly Woodbury says evidence now shows those worries have not been borne out.

“To date there are zero cases of (surface contact) transmission. Systems for reusable and refill are proven to be safe and sanitary,” she said.

Studying plastic pollution in Canada’s waters
Studying plastic pollution in Canada’s waters

The group points to a recent statement by 125 international health experts affirming that reusable bags and containers are safe, so long as they are properly washed.

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The BC CDC has banned customers from bringing their own takeout containers to restaurants, but has left the question of reusable bags and cups up to businesses.

Read more: Plastics in our oceans – How one Canadian is trying to clean up

Many businesses have decided to err on the side of caution.

Woodbury says the pandemic has also derailed momentum towards larger-scale government action against single use-plastics.

Canadian entrepreneur working to turn plastic waste into clean fuel
Canadian entrepreneur working to turn plastic waste into clean fuel

“The provincial government was supposed to release their clean B.C. plastics action plan in the spring, the federal government was on track to ban a comprehensive list of single use plastics by 2021,” she said.

The provincial plan now won’t come until at least the fall, while it’s unclear when Ottawa will roll its ban out.

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Read more: Vancouver approves ban on straws, plastic bags

Woodbury is now urging the public to put pressure on businesses to move away from single-use products.

“It was really easy for businesses to backtrack and do this, with the right intent, but it’s of course led us down a deeper hole of plastic pollution, at a time when this crisis is already really serious,” she said.

“This has led to a surge in plastics that often are not recycled, they’re ending up in landfills and public spaces and oceans.”

— With files from Linda Aylesworth