Opinion

Plastic Over People: Coronavirus War Profiteering

The plastics industry is notorious for manipulating consumer behaviour by tapping into our most fundamental desires and fears, writes India Gill, and with the industry’s future in jeopardy, the opportunity to re-brand single-use plastic bags as a safer option for public health than reusables is a marketing dream come true.

Image by Rich Carey, via Shutterstock. ID: 287424425

From the moment you step back into Australia from abroad and are escorted by the military to your guarded hotel room for a mandatory 14-day quarantine, there is no mistaking that we are truly in a war combatting the coronavirus pandemic. One of the inescapable realities of history is that with war come war profiteers; those who unethically take advantage of the crisis for their own ill-gotten benefit to the detriment of society.1 Sadly, this war against the coronavirus is no exception and its war-profiteering villain is the plastic industry.

Over the last decade, tremendous progress has been made to eliminate single-use plastics, most notably via regulations around the world either prohibiting the use of single-use plastic bags in grocery stores or implementing a monetary surcharge to deter their use. According to the 2018 UN Environment report, over 127 countries have adopted some form of legislation to regulate single-use plastic bags.2 Yet virtually overnight, the plastic industry has undone this hard earned victory for our environment, all under the false pretence of protecting our front line workers in supermarkets.

The plastics industry has fed the narrative that customers cannot bring their own reusable bags to supermarkets because doing so would expose their employees to the coronavirus.Let me unpack this canard. I arrive at the supermarket. I am wearing a mask. The trolley I am using has been sanitised. I go about my shopping, and in doing so I touch, with my bare hands, every single item that I place in my trolley (which have already been touched by those who packed, shipped and stocked them). I go to the check out aisle. I again touch every single item in my trolley as I place it on the belt. The employee who then packs my groceries, who is wearing a mask and gloves, then touches dozens of items that I have just touched and places them into a single-use plastic bag. Yet somehow if that same employee touches one more item that I have also just touched, my reusable bag, that person will somehow experience an unacceptable additional risk of contracting the coronavirus. The plastic industry is tapping into the threat of coronavirus contamination, deeming reusable bags as vectors for the virus, when there is little scientific evidence for this.4 The coronavirus can survive for days on plastic surfaces and plastic bags, therefore, are no safer than reusable bag fibres.Plain and simple, this is war profiteering by the plastics industry.

“The plastic industry is tapping into the threat of coronavirus contamination, deeming reusable bags as vectors for the virus, when there is little scientific evidence […]. This is war profiteering […] consistent with the clear historical pattern and practice of the plastic industry to manipulate consumer behaviour to its benefit.”

This is consistent with the clear historical pattern and practice of the plastic industry to manipulate consumer behaviour to its benefit. Although hard to imagine today, there was a time when single-use plastics didn’t exist.  The burgeoning plastic industry seized upon the post World War II spike in consumerism to introduce a “simpler” and more “convenient” way of life.Rather than refilling milk in glass bottles and buying soda in aluminium cans, the world was provided with an ostensibly easier and cheaper alternative, single-use plastic.7 The industries ultimately aimed to sell people “garbage” that they would use once then throw away, only to buy it again the next day – and it succeeded in making single-use plastic a staple of human life.8

The industry’s economic prosperity took absolute priority over the devastating environmental effects of plastic waste — yet by the 1960s, society began to recognise the early stages of a plastic crisis the Plastics Industry Association could no longer ignore.9 In response to this initial backlash, the plastic industry introduced the Council for Solid Waste Solutions to promote recycling programs.10 Recycling was a persuasive means of alleviating any sentiments of consumer “guilt” surrounding plastic waste. As early as 1987, it was acknowledged that recycling was simply not a feasible solution to managing plastic waste, and as of 2017, only 8.4% of plastic was being recycled.11 The Plastics Industry Association then pivoted to arguing that “waste management practices and infrastructure did not keep pace with the changing economy,” successfully creating the illusion that all plastic is recyclable.12

“Recycling was a persuasive means of alleviating any sentiments of consumer “guilt” surrounding plastic waste.”

This deception continued with the plastic industry campaigning to hold individuals responsible for the mismanagement of plastic waste.13 The threat of a disposable bottle ban in Vermont resulted in the plastic industry’s highly influential campaign, “Keep America Beautiful”.14 The plastic industry fabricated the message that plastic waste was not responsible for pollution; rather the responsibility lay in the hands of society and how people manage their own plastic waste.15 In 2019, plastic manufacturers formed the Alliance to End Plastic Waste and pledged $1.5 billion to help “make the dream of a world without plastic waste a reality”.16 These measures have simultaneously created a positive public image for the plastic industry while distracting the world from the plastic industry’s responsibility for our current environmental catastrophe.

“The plastic industry fabricated the message that plastic waste was not responsible for pollution; rather the responsibility lay in the hands of society and how people manage their own plastic waste.”

Over 50 years ago in the movie The Graduate, successful businessman, Mr. McGuire, solemnly imparted to the young, impressionable Benjamin Braddock that “the future was in plastics”.17  Sadly, Mr. McGuire’s advice was prescient. The plastic industry has indeed dominated the last 50 years, using its money, power and influence to beat back efforts to control the insidious impact of plastics to our planet.  Environmentalists finally broke this half-century of plastic industry dominance by championing regulations designed to eliminate single-use plastic bags. If we do not hold the line and preserve these gains now, in the face of the plastic industry’s insidious coronavirus war profiteering, our “future” will be 50 more years of “plastics” – and that’s no future at all.

References
1. Robin Hicks. “How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Changing People and Our Planet.” Eco-Business, 22 Apr. 2020,
2. Excell, Carole. “127 Countries Now Regulate Plastic Bags. Why Aren’t We Seeing Less Pollution?” World Resources Institute, 13 Sept. 2019,
3-5. Chua, Jasmin Malik. “Plastic Bags Were Finally Being Banned. Then Came the Pandemic.” Vox, 20 May 2020,
6 – 7.“The Litter Myth.” NPR, 5 Sept. 2019,
9 -10. ‌Root, Tik. “Inside the Long War to Protect Plastic.” Center for Public Integrity, 16 May 2019,
11. US EPA. “Plastics: Material-Specific Data.” United States Environmental Protection Agency, 30 July 2018,
12. Root, Center for Public Integrity
13-15. “The Litter Myth.” NPR
16. Root, Center for Public Integrity
17. Seabrook, John. “Plastics.The New Yorker, 13 Sept. 2010,


India Gill is an undergraduate student at the University of Sydney in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, majoring in International and Global Studies and English. She has strong interests in sustainability and the environmental sciences.