Plastic bag bans aren’t helping us fight against coronavirus – Calls to reverse bans on single-use plastic grocery bags
By Angela Logomasini
Before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, warnings about potential public health consequences of banning single-use plastics in the name of environmental protection fell on deaf ears. But now people are wisely calling on lawmakers in New York, California, and other states and localities to reverse bans and regulations on single-use plastic grocery bags. Reusable bags can contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and other pathogens.
Research shows that reusable bags harbor dangerous microorganisms. In fact, the sanitary nature of single-use plastics is one of the key reasons these products have become so prevalent, in addition to the fact that they require less energy and make less pollution in production than alternatives. Problems related to plastics in the environment can and should be addressed by proper disposal policies and litter control, rather than through policies that undermine public health.
Back in 2011, researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University examined a sample of reusable bags from shoppers and found “large numbers of bacteria,” including dangerous fecal bacteria such as coliform, E. coli, and salmonella. Bacteria was found in 99% of the reusable bags, while no bacteria or viruses were found in a sample of disposable plastic bags and new reusable bags. Bacteria can easily be transferred from leaking meat packages as well as from fruits and vegetables, and the study found it grows in the bags that are stored in car trunks.
Reusable bags also pick up bacteria and viruses from simply being held and carried around. A 2012 study found that nine members of a soccer team contracted the norovirus, a leading cause of food poisoning, from touching a reusable bag or eating food contained inside. The bag had been stored in a bathroom. That might seem like an outlier, but people cart these bags all over the place, touching surfaces on public transportation, taking them into public bathrooms, and other places, creating lots of opportunities for the bags to pick up bacteria and viruses.
The pathogens on these reusable bags can also infect people in grocery stores who don’t even use them. A 2018 study assessed the probability of norovirus transmission from reusable grocery bags carried around in the supermarket using a similar, but not infectious, virus as a proxy. It found that the virus easily moved from the bag all around the store, with a high concentration found on the hands of both consumers and store checkout clerks.
It’s feasible that these reusable bags could also carry the coronavirus, which is why Clemson University Professor Robert M. Kimmel, author of a 2014 life-cycle study on plastics, has urged New York state to halt its ban at least until the coronavirus is under control.
Kimmel explained that his research shows that reusable bags are “highly likely to be contaminated with bacteria and viruses and could transfer this contamination to people by contact with supermarket check-out conveyors, grocery carts, kitchen counters and other surfaces.”
The reusable bags should be thoroughly washed after every use, says Kimmel. Yet only 3% of reusable bag consumers ever wash the bags according to a survey conducted by Charles P. Gerba and colleagues at the University of Arizona.
Single-use plastic bags are not the only problem for environmental activists, who also want bans on all single-use plastics. They suggest we should all carry our own “to-go” set of reusable metal or wooden utensils, straws, and cups. But again, these are likely to harbor pathogens if not thoroughly cleaned between every use — and this includes their carrying cases. And cleaning a reusable straw isn’t exactly easy.
A key reason that busy eateries rely on single-use utensils and containers is because they provide superior sanitary performance. Studies dating back to the 1970s showed that reusable utensils often contained dangerous levels of bacteria even after being washed, particularly in fast-paced restaurants where a high volume of people circulate in and out quickly.
That’s one very good reason why fast food eateries, school cafeterias, hospitals, nursing homes, and other medical facilities have relied on single-use plastic products: They reduce risks of disease transmission.
Apparently, Starbucks and Dunkin’ finally got the message in the age of the coronavirus: Both announced that they will no longer allow their customers to get refills in reusable cups.
Single-use plastic bans amount to bad public health policy, which is one reason why proper disposal, rather than bans, is the answer to litter problems. It’s time for lawmakers to wake up before more people get sick from dirty pathogen-laden reusable products.
Angela Logomasini, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free market think tank.