A Giant Eagle Inc.Market District supermarket is located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA on Tuesday, October 29, 2019.

Allison Ferrand | Bloomberg | Getty Images

In early 2020, Giant Eagle embarked on a company-wide mission to phase out all single-use plastic bags. The Pittsburgh-based grocery chain no longer offered thin disposable bags at the checkout in around 40 stores. Signs were posted in the parking lots reminding shoppers to bring reusable bags and discounts offered to those who did.

The company has reduced the cost of 20 million single-use plastic bags, which can litter parks, get stuck in trees or land in landfills, according to the company.

But the coronavirus pandemic hit in mid-March. Shoppers piled groceries, soap, and toilet paper in carts. Giant Eagle installed plexiglass umbrellas near cashiers, labeled one-way aisles to encourage social distancing, and returned plastic bags to all stores to encourage customers to keep reusable ones at home.

“We fully realized that we were stepping back – just like other retailers,” said Dan Donovan, senior director of corporate communications for the company and a member of the team that drives the grocer’s environmental efforts. He said safety is a priority as employees and customers were concerned about Covid and scientists wanted to better understand how the virus was spreading.

Similar patterns have played out across the country. The pandemic not only disrupted the daily rhythm of work, school and life. It made it difficult for retailers to reduce the use of non-recyclable plastics, from grocery bags to plastic forks. It also led to behavioral changes that resulted in higher consumption of packaging as more people shopped online, bought disposable protective equipment like masks and gloves, and became interested in packaged or packaged products and other groceries in the store.

A year later, single-use plastics remain a ubiquitous part of retail – even as big companies like Walmart, Target, Kroger, and CVS Health commit to transitioning to more sustainable alternatives.

“For many of us, the pandemic has changed our relationship with single-use plastics in uncomfortable ways,” said John Hocevar, ocean campaign manager for Greenpeace USA, a nonprofit environmental organization. “The new types of useless plastic packaging piling up in our homes and filling our trash cans are making many people – including policymakers and executives – think more about reuse.”

Plastic is a major driver of climate change worldwide. Although companies that make and sell plastic tout recycling as a solution, less than 10% of America’s plastic waste is recycled. Research also shows that the US generates more plastic waste than any other country in the world.

There’s the science of what we learn, and then there’s the feelings and emotions and fears of people, regardless of the science in some cases.

And Donovan

Giant eagle speaker

Fiercely contested bans on plastic bags were pushed back or suspended early in the health crisis. Maine and Oregon have postponed statewide bans. California Governor Gavin Newsom suspended a ban in his state that had been in place since 2016. New York saw a surge in Covid-19 cases shortly after the state ban on single-use plastic bags went into effect on March 1 for about seven months and slowed efforts to change deep-seated habits.

Covid-19 also stepped up efforts by plastic lobby groups to deny and lift the bans.

Consultancy Wood Mackenzie estimated that U.S. demand for flexible packaging, which is largely single-use plastics, increased 4% to 5% year over year after panic buying the early Covid bans. The company expects demand to grow by 4.5% annually over the next five years.

“These companies should now put plans into action for what a world beyond single-use plastics will look like,” said Hocevar. “The pandemic cannot be an excuse that is compounding another public health crisis.”

A worker behind a partially protective plastic screen and wearing a mask and gloves checking out a customer at Presidente Supermarket on April 13, 2020 in Miami, Florida.

Joe Raedle | Getty Images

“Get back on the roadmap”

Over the past year, public health officials have allayed fears that Covid-19 could spread to contaminated surfaces. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus is mainly transmitted from person to person. More than 125 health professionals have issued guidelines on how to use reusable products safely during the pandemic.

New York began enforcing the plastic bag ban in the fall. Some retailers like Giant Eagle say they want to resume their sustainability efforts. Others, including Amazon’s Whole Foods and Texas grocer HEB, are bringing back food bars that customers use to serve themselves rather than pick from prepackaged plastic containers.

Donovan said Giant Eagle wants to “get back on the roadmap we planned more than a year ago”. By early summer, if not earlier, the grocer will once again be removing single-use plastic bags from some stores and plans to expand these to all 470 locations over time to meet the commitment to phase them out completely by 2025.

But first, Donovan said the giant eagle had to win over buyers – a potentially tougher sale after a year that may have ingrained germ awareness. When the company surveyed customers in the fall, 60% said they didn’t feel safe bringing reusable bags or seeing other customers bring them in.

“There’s the science of what we learn, and then there’s the feelings and emotions and the fears of people, regardless of the science in some cases,” said Donovan, who added the company would potentially offer customers discounts on groceries or fuel motivation at his gas stations.

When cafes and hot bars reopen, thought will also be given to how to remove other plastic such as straws or utensils. And it is working with manufacturers on more sustainable packaging for private label products.

She also wants to make a rapidly growing part of her business greener. Online orders have quadrupled and flattened out during the peak of the pandemic, but twice as fast as they did before the pandemic, he said. There are plans to offer customers the option of receiving all paper bags instead of plastic when picking up groceries or having them delivered from the roadside.

Nate Faust was inspired to start his new company, Olive, after seeing the huge amount of cardboard and other packaging in the trash in his neighborhood.

A wake-up call

Around a dozen retailers, including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dollar General, and Kroger, have signed an initiative called Beyond the Bag, run by an investment firm’s innovation arm, Closed Loop Partners. Walmart, Target, and CVS Health are founding members and have each contributed $ 5 million.

Kate Daly, director of the Circular Economy Center at Closed Loop, noted that many of these retailers wrote checks and joined the consortium during the global crisis.

“It was a clear indication that none of our corporate partners are pausing sustainability,” she said.

However, environmental groups have argued that corporate initiatives to reduce and recycle plastic waste have been inadequate, especially as plastic manufacturers increase production. Environmentalists are pushing for legislative action, including the passage of the Plastic Pollution Free Act.

“Big brands have been promising recycled content for decades, but the pollution crisis is worsening every day,” said Hocevar. “It is time to end greenwashing and take real steps to end our reliance on polluting single-use plastics.”

Daly acknowledged the pandemic had its setbacks but also said it opened people’s eyes to the need for sustainability. As people spent more time at home, they saw their trash piling up with individual food wrappers or discarded bubble wrap from online deliveries, she said. Companies recognized the vulnerability of global supply chains and heard calls for action from activist shareholders, politicians and consumers.

“We need to unburden customers, not expect them to be the innovators and entrepreneurs, but offer them a variety of options that are cost-effective, inclusive, accessible, and the most sustainable,” she said. “This is what customers expect and demand more and more.”

Last month, Beyond the Bag announced nine winners of a challenge to find alternatives to single-use bags – from compostable bags made from seaweed to a kiosk where customers can borrow and return reusable bags.

Daly said shoppers could see retailers testing some of these approaches in stores as early as this year.

Outside of grocery stores, too, entrepreneurs see the desire for sustainability as a business opportunity that can generate profits in addition to goodwill and a healthier planet.

Nate Faust sold his former company Jet.com to Walmart for $ 3.3 billion. He co-founded the start-up with Marc Lore, who recently left the big box retailer after leading his e-commerce strategy. Now Faust has founded a company that has set itself the goal of reducing packaging.

Faust said the idea arose out of his own frustration after seeing the amount of discarded boxes in his New Jersey neighborhood.

His new start-up, Olive, consolidates clothing purchases across brands and tosses them in a reusable bag at customers’ doors. It also aims to reduce fuel and pollution by delivering orders once a week rather than multiple times a day or week. Customers can return items in the same bag.

“More and more consumers are caring about the environment,” he said. “It’s not about making a deal. This is how they live their lives. As younger generations made up a larger portion of consumer spending, that will be the trait in and of itself.”