During the COVID-19 pandemic, one problem that has been discussed that could aggravate the situation is the ban on single-use plastic bags by state and local governments that force shoppers to use reusable bags.
New York state’s plastic bag was scheduled to take effect on March 1, the same day a patient tested positive for the coronavirus.
On March 16, The Wall Street Journal editorial board called for an immediate suspension of the ban to protect the public. They argued there are a lot of unknowns about COVID-19, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said the virus can remain infectious in the air for three hours, and is most stable on plastic and stainless steel up to 72 hours, or 3 days. The editorial board pointed out that “reusable shopping bags may harbor the virus and could facilitate its spread in grocery stores and pharmacies that remain open even as workplaces, schools and restaurants shutter. Yet in California, New York, Seattle and elsewhere, plastic bags are banned and shoppers are urged to rely on reusable bags.”
On the same day as the editorial, a New York Supreme Court decision put a hold on enforcing the ban until May 15, 2020.
Concerns over reusable bags and their ability to carry harmful pathogens is not a new phenomenon. There are several studies that show problems with reusable bags, like an April 2011 study by the University of Arizona. The researchers interviewed consumers at random before they entered the store and analyzed their reusable bags. They found that few of the shoppers cleaned the reusable bags and they were used for a multitude of purposes.
The researchers took samples of the bags and found large amounts of bacteria in most of them. When meat products were transported in them and then the bags were stored in cars for two hours, bacterial growth increased 10-fold.
City-Journal’s John Tierney discussed in his March 12 article several studies on the problems that arise with mandates concerning plastic bags, including one undertaken at Loma Linda University. The researchers sprayed a harmless virus surrogate into shoppers’ reusable grocery bags and had them shop at three California grocery stores. After the shoppers finished their purchases, the researchers tested various surfaces the shoppers touched, like packaged and unpackaged food, checkout counters, and touch screens.
They discovered the surrogate virus had been transmitted by the shoppers because of their bags. As a result, the researchers recommended that stores have their employees adapt in-store hand hygiene and routinely disinfect surfaces. They also recommend that shoppers clean their reusable bags often.
A 2012 University of Pennsylvania study, “Grocery Bans and Foodborne Illness,” discussed how San Francisco was the first major U.S. jurisdiction to implement a single-use plastic bag ban. The study found that emergency room admissions related to bacteria, like e-coli, which are found in reusable bags, spiked after the ban was instituted. Their conclusion was “the costs and benefits of the San Francisco plastic bag ban suggest the health risks they impose are not likely offset by environmental benefits.”
Single-use plastic bags are useful tools to transport food cleanly and safely. They are handy for homeowners to employ for other uses that do not involve food transport, like throwing away messy items as part of their regular trash. Pet owners find them very helpful as well.
With the apparent ease the coronavirus is transmitted and supermarkets being one of the few businesses that remain open where citizens are allowed to gather, single-use plastic bags serve a valuable purpose in keeping infections down. Everyone should also heed the message about cleaning reusable bags.
As for the environmental impact, which is the initiative behind banning plastic bags, single-use plastic bags end up in trees and streams because people are careless and do not recycle or properly dispose of them. There are projects being undertaken that encourage efficient recycling, like those being proposed by Closed Loop Partners, a private investment firm that works with industry, entrepreneurs, and municipalities to develop advanced recycling technologies. They argue there is a market to recycle plastics, but there is not enough available as almost 90 percent of plastic waste ends up in a landfill, incinerator, or the environment.
There are other innovative companies like Agilyx, Brightmark, Enerkem, Fulcrum, Nexus Fuels, and Plastic Energy that are finding creative and efficient ways to reuse plastic and convert it into practical substances like building materials, electricity generation, and low carbon fuels.
If localities are concerned about single-use plastic bags and other waste, perhaps instead of banning or placing a tax on bags, they should work with companies that are finding ways to monetize and incentivize recycling.
In the meantime, during this crisis, state and local governments should consider easing or lifting the ban on plastic bags to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.