Paper Or Plastic? Bans On Single-Use Bags Tossed Out Amid Fears Of Virus Spread

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A sign out front at Trader Joe’s in Cambridge notifies shoppers reusable bags are not allowed in the store. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A sign out front at Trader Joe’s in Cambridge notifies shoppers reusable bags are not allowed in the store. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Reusable grocery tote bags across Massachusetts are idle these days, stuffed in the backs of vehicles and hanging on door knobs in homes.

That's because last week Gov. Charlie Baker issued a new public health order: "From now on reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans will be lifted."

Several New England states have also temporarily banned reusable bags or delayed implementing or enforcing new restrictions on single-use bags.

The goal is to limit the spread of the coronavirus in food stores and pharmacies. But the scientific evidence supporting the prohibition of reusables is far from conclusive.

Over the past two years, 139 Massachusetts municipalities have instituted a variety of restrictions on single-use bags. A move to pass a statewide ban has failed in 10 legislative seasons.

The Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarkets and grocers, has supported a uniform statewide ban for environmental reasons but right now, it's pro-paper and plastic.

"During an emergency crisis, they're probably safer than reusable bags," says Brian Houghton, the association's senior vice president for policy. "There have been studies we've seen by the CDC and others that there are surfaces that this virus can live on."

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers no specific recommendations about reusable bags and coronavirus. (Though they do say you should regularly wash reusable bags to prevent the spread of food-borne disease.)

Washed shopping bags hung out to dry in the fresh air. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)
Washed shopping bags hung out to dry in the fresh air. (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

And Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health Director Jana Ferguson wrote in an email that department has seen "no scientific information specific to bags and the ability of reusable bags to be a way to spread coronavirus."

Despite this, the Plastic Industry Association is pressuring officials to reintroduce plastic bags. In a March 18 letter to Department of Health and Human Services head Alex Azar, association President Tony Radoszewski asked the federal government to support single-use plastic bags to help fight the pandemic. The association cites several studies finding that reusables can carry bacteria and viruses.

But Massachusetts Rep. Lori Ehrlich, a Marblehead Democrat and one of the the leading legislative advocates for a plastic bag ban, says that scientific research showing a health threat from reusable bags is flawed.

"Those studies have long been debunked and shown not have much truth behind them," she says.

The Plastic Industry Association frequently cites one 2011 study that found food-borne bacteria present in reusable shopping bags used to carry groceries. The research was funded by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that advocates on behalf of disposable plastic bag manufacturers.

The science on reusable bags is limited, says Meghan May, professor of microbiology at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine.

May has studied reusable bags and viruses, but says, "the best papers I've seen for this virus [the coronavirus] on surfaces don't include fabric as yet."

In work published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers tested for the coronavirus on a variety of surfaces. They found the virus was still viable 72 hours after they applied it to plastic and stainless steel, 24 hours on cardboard, and just four hours on copper. The viability of the virus on cloth — used in many reusable grocery bags — was not investigated.

However, May says until demonstrated otherwise, the conservative thing to do would be to assume the novel coronavirus can survive on cloth bags.

Workers at several Massachusetts supermarket chains have tested positive for the coronavirus. It's not known if reusable bags played any role in their contamination. But May, who supports the use of reusables in ordinary times, says these aren't ordinary times.

"If you can put yourself in the shoes of a grocery worker who's having to come into contact with these potentially contaminated objects for eight hours at a time," she says, "it suddenly becomes clear that's something we should restrict the use of."

Since the bans on reusable bags have gone into effect, the demand for paper and plastic bags has soared and supplies are shrinking. Houghton, of the Massachusetts Food Association, says wholesale distributors of single-use bags are reporting shortages.

Rep. Ehrlich says as soon as Baker lifts the temporary ban on reusables, she will again introduce legislation banning single-use bags statewide.

Reusable advocate Alex Eaves, of Norwell, says why wait? Eaves' documentary “REUSE! Because You Can’t Recycle The Planet” offers a quick, no-cost alternative to bagging on his Facebook page: ditching bags all together.

"Bring your shopping cart into the store, fill it up again when you check out, bring it out to your car and then transfer all your groceries into a bag or box you have in your car," Eaves suggests.

This segment aired on March 30, 2020.

Headshot of Bruce Gellerman

Bruce Gellerman Senior Reporter
Bruce Gellerman was a journalist and senior correspondent, frequently covering science, business, technology and the environment.



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