Using COVID-19 to wage war on reusable grocery bags

Conservative interests are teaming up to bring back the single-use plastic bag, using scientifically questionable claims that reusable bags spread coronavirus.

It took Maine Governor Janet Mills 12 days since the first case of novel coronavirus hit to implement the type of restrictive social distancing policies scientists overwhelmingly recommend to halt disease spread, including the closure of nonessential businesses.

It took her only five days, however, to delay the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags, using a scientifically questionable theory that reusable bags pose an outsized risk of spreading COVID-19.

Since Mills’ March 17 order, reusable grocery bags in Maine have become taboo. City officials are now discouraging shopping from bringing them to the store, claiming they will threaten grocery story workers. “According to current research and understanding, COVID-19 can survive on various surfaces for hours and in some cases days,” Portland City Manager Jon Jennings said in a news release last week.

And though Mills was the first state governor in America to give credence to this theory, she hasn’t been the last. Over the weekend, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu outright prohibited shoppers from bringing reusable bags to stores. Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker did the same on Wednesday. “From now on, reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans are lifted,” he said.

This, however, is likely just the beginning of the plastic industry’s war on reusable bags. Because as the pandemic has picked up steam in America, so too has the industry’s push for policy and culture shifts to encourage single-use plastics, and ban reusable alternatives. Their allies in the news media, oil and gas industry, and conservative think tank world are all quickly lining up behind them—and together, they’re putting pressure on the public and the federal government get on board.

Last week, the Plastics Industry Association asked the Department of Health and Human Services to make a national pronouncement supporting single-use plastics and advocating against reusable grocery bags, claiming they will worsen the pandemic. “Study after study after study have shown that reusable bags can carry viruses and bacteria, spread them throughout a grocery store, and live on surfaces for up to three days,” they claimed.

But those three studies don’t actually say what the industry claims. Taken together, they do not provide sufficient evidence that reusable grocery bags pose a greater threat to consumers during the COVID-19 pandemic than single-use plastic grocery bags.

Let’s go through them one by one.

1) The 10-year-old American Chemistry Council-funded study that looked at 84 reusable bags in two states and found no disease-causing bacteria

The first piece of research that the plastic industry says strongly suggests a correlation between reusable grocery bags and coronavirus spread was this 2010 study funded by the American Chemistry Council, an industry group which represents plastics interests. Conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona, it was published in the journal Food Protection Trends in 2011.

Analyzing just 84 reusable bags collected in California and Arizona, the studies authors concluded that “Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half.” They did not, however, find any pathogenic bacteria or strains of E. Coli that actually make you sick. As Consumer Reports noted at the time, “They only found bacteria that don’t normally cause disease, but do cause disease in people with weakened immune systems.”

“A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, said in the article. “These bacteria can be found lots of places, so no need to go overboard.”

The reason there was bacteria on the bags was because people didn’t wash them. If people washed the bags, the study said, 99.9 percent of all bacteria was destroyed.

2) The study that looked at 30 reusable bags and said essentially the same thing

The second study, published in the international journal Food Control in 2019, found microbes capable of causing food-borne illness on the bags. This time, half the bags tested had coliform bacteria on them and some even had E. coli.

This makes sense, again, because the bags had a bunch of food in them, and were not washed or sanitized. As Johns Hopkins University infectious disease specialist told Bustle at the time, “Reusable shopping bags, like anything, can accumulate micoorganisms from the environment. Unless the bag is visibly soiled, most of the risk is not worth worrying about.”

Of course, this means coronavirus could be on your bag, because coronavirus can live on plastic surfaces for up to 3 days. But neither of these studies indicate that it has any greater risk of being on your reusable bag than, say, your money, your phone, or your hands, which also get a lot of use at the grocery story. Nor do they indicate that reusable bags made of plastic have a greater risk of holding the virus than single-use plastic bags, which could be infected with pathogens during transportation, manufacturing, or handling.

Cameron Wolfe, an associate professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal something similar, when talking about how companies like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have stopped filling customers’ reusable cups out of fear of coronavirus. “It’s drawing a pretty long bow to believe this will be meaningfully impactful,” he said. “It’s an incredibly low likelihood that the cup would be the primary vehicle for transmission to occur.”

The article added: “Coronavirus can survive for a period outside the body and is transmitted through droplets like those generated by a cough or a sneeze. If a cup is infected, its owner probably is too, said Mr. Wolfe, making handing over cash and touching door handles potentially just as risky.

“You’d have a better impact if you told customers with active coughs not to come in, or to use hand sanitizer before approaching the coffee stand,” he said.”

3) The study that looked at one reusable bag that someone had literally vomited next to in a bathroom and then gave to a group of children.

Yeah, honestly, like I can’t even go there with this one. You can read about that study here.

Also, coronavirus is not a norovirus. It is literally not the same thing.

No evidence, no problem

There is certainly a chance that coronavirus could live on our reusable grocery bags if those bags come in contact with an infected person—particularly if those bags are made of plastic. A study published recently in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the novel coronavirus is most stable on plastic surfaces.

But that also includes single-use plastic surfaces, said Aaron Bernstein, the director of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “This suggests that relying on plastic bags may be the best way to ensure the virus persists in the environment and facilitates spread of the disease.”

Clearly, there is still a debate to be had over the efficacy of plastic bag policies for coronavirus—especially since plastic bag bans in themselves are attempts to address climate change and ocean pollution, two other pressing global crises. It would be foolish to prematurely stop an attempt to address two global crises without a baseline sort of consensus that it would even remotely help the other.

The right and its allies, however, appear to have made up their minds. Energy in Depth, a pro-oil-and-gas drilling industry front group formed by the American Petroleum Institute, wrote an article claiming coronavirus will spread without more single-use plastic bags. The New York Post and the Wall Street Journal have written editorials in support of reversing bag bans. Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative anti-climate group, is taking out ads on Facebook claiming that plastic bag bans help spread the coronavirus infection.

It makes sense why so many right-leaning interest groups would come together on this issue. Before coronavirus, single-use plastic products were falling out of favor, as studies showed they were exacerbating climate change and destroying the ocean. Now, the industry is hoping COVID-19 will make everyone forget all that.

“As the coronavirus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital,” Plastics Industry Association President Tony Radoszewski said in a statement last week. “We live longer, healthier, and better because of single-use plastics.”

Bernstein, however, is hoping that we remember something else. “In a crisis, we need science to guide us,” he said. “And that means science done by credible investigators who are supported by organizations without a vested financial interest in a specific outcome of their research.”

(Photo by Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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