As the government, businesses, and individuals move to slow Wuhan coronavirus’ spread, one of the environmentalists’ pet “green” projects is under threat. Many municipalities and states banned single-use plastic bags due to heavy lobbying by those who insist that officials replace them with germ- and bacteria-laden reusable shopping bags.

That seems to be changing, much to environmentalists’ dissatisfaction, in the face of the Wuhan coronavirus.  Because the virus can survive on such items and thus spread infection, many plastic bag bans are being delayed or lifted to shut down the petri dish of contagion these reusable shopping bags represent.

Personally, I am always a little skeeved out to see some misguided shopper toss dripping packages of raw chicken and blood-oozing ground beef packages into their “earth-friendly” shopping totes.  People using these totes typically don’t use the provided plastic(!) bags to contain such leakage, and these totes are then loaded up with fresh fruit and vegetables, loosely wrapped bakery or deli items (no plastic!), and etc.

I cringe every time I see it happen at the grocery store, not just because it’s disgusting but because I know that these totes, replete with who knows what disgusting pathogens, are then left baking in their owners’ electric cars until their next foray to the supermarket . . . . where they will pile more oozing packages of raw meat and fresh produce into their own personal hazardous waste experiment bags.

Now I’m sure that some of these reusable shopping bag owners do wash or, at the very least, rinse out their bio-hazard totes from time to time, particularly when they become visibly soiled.  But do they all disinfect them—kill all the nasties, including those that cannot be seen—every single time they use them?  Seems doubtful.

This is why many public health experts were not enthusiastic about the push for reusable shopping bags in the first place.  With the coronavirus entering the picture, this fad seems to have hit a snag.

The New York Post reports:

The COVID-19 outbreak is giving new meaning to those “sustainable” shopping bags that politicians and environmentalists have been so eager to impose on the public. These reusable tote bags can sustain the COVID-19 and flu viruses — and spread the viruses throughout the store.

Researchers have been warning for years about the risks of these bags spreading deadly viral and bacterial diseases, but public officials have ignored their concerns, determined to eliminate single-use bags and other plastic products despite their obvious advantages in reducing the spread of pathogens.

In New York state, a new law took effect this month banning single-use plastic bags in most retail businesses, and this week Democratic state legislators advanced a bill that would force coffee shops to accept consumers’ reusable cups — a practice that Starbucks and other chains have wisely suspended to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus.

John Flanagan, the Republican leader of the New York state Senate, has criticized the new legislation and called for a suspension of the law banning plastic bags. “Senate Democrats’ desperate need to be green is unclean during the coronavirus outbreak,” he said Tuesday, but so far he’s been a lonely voice among public officials.

The COVID-19 virus is just one of many pathogens that shoppers can spread unless they wash the bags regularly, which few people bother to do. Viruses and bacteria can survive in the tote bags up to nine days, according to one study of coronaviruses.

It turns out that my initial if unlearned, common sense disgust with these reusable shopping bags was well-placed.

The New York Post continues:

The risk of spreading viruses was clearly demonstrated in a 2018 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health. The researchers, led by Ryan Sinclair of the Loma Linda University School of Public Health, sent shoppers into three California grocery stores carrying polypropylene plastic tote bags that had been sprayed with a harmless surrogate of a virus.

After the shoppers bought groceries and checked out, the researchers found sufficiently high traces of the surrogate to risk transmission on the hands of the shoppers and checkout clerks, as well as on many surfaces touched by the shoppers, including packaged food, unpackaged produce, shopping carts, checkout counters, and the touch screens used to pay for groceries. The researchers said that the results warranted the adaptation of “in-store hand hygiene” and “surface disinfection” by merchants, and they also recommended educating shoppers to wash their bags.

An earlier study of supermarkets in Arizona and California found large numbers of bacteria in almost all the reusable bags — and no contamination in any of the new single-use plastic bags. When a bag with meat juice on the interior was stored in the trunk of a car, within two hours the number of bacteria multiplied tenfold.

The researchers also found that the vast majority of shoppers never followed the advice to wash their bags. One of the researchers, Charles Gerba of the University of Arizona, said that the findings “suggest a serious threat to public health,” particularly from fecal coliform bacteria, which was found in half the bags. These bacteria and other pathogens can be transferred from raw meat in the bag and also from other sources.

Environmentalists are upset with the turn of events represented by the Wuhan coronavirus. They are concerned that people who are now in the habit of using these reusable shopping bags will become deprogrammed and go back to using single-use plastic bags. This, they fear, is more worrisome than Wuhan coronavirus. Or something.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

Environmentalists say temporary moves away from reusable cups and bags could have a lasting impact on the fight against single-use plastics. They worry the moves could raise bigger doubts about the hygiene of reusable products and disrupt fragile consumer habits.

Larissa Copello de Souza, a campaigner at Zero Waste Europe, a Brussels-based nonprofit, said companies were shortsighted to focus only on the threat posed by coronavirus. “We cannot forget and disregard the other big current challenges we are also currently facing,” she said, citing climate change, waste and plastic production. “Promoting the use of reusables is certainly one of the greatest practices we can have to address those issues.”

Upstream, a nonprofit, also defended reusables.

“Coronavirus mainly spreads through coughs and sneezes, not your reusable water bottle or cup,” it said, adding that disposable items could harbor pathogens that settled during manufacturing and transportation.

. . . . Ravi Dhar, director of the Center for Customer Insights at the Yale School of Management, says habit formation is particularly important when trying to persuade people to change their behavior. Once habits are set, people behave without careful deliberation, like automatically brushing one’s teeth every morning.

I never made the switch to reusable shopping bags (yuck), but I did briefly try paper shopping bags.  The problem I found is that the new paper bags were not nearly as sturdy as the ones we had before single-use plastic bags became the norm.

The new paper bags split easily, just from the corner of a box of cereal/crackers or from the slightest bit of weight, and I ended up with my groceries strewn all over my driveway.  This did not make me happy, especially when items in glass jars or bottles broke.  So I went back to plastic.

Then they started making single-use plastic bags so thin that more of my groceries met the pavement than my fridge or pantry, so now I always have my groceries double-bagged in single-use plastic bags. I am shamelessly happy about this choice and no longer see my money splatted all over the pavement.

Single-use plastic bags are more convenient and economical since I’m not losing money on broken jars and bottles shattering as they fall onto grocery store parking lots or my own drive/walkway.  More importantly, though, it seems far safer in terms of public—and my—health . . . and not just during a global pandemic.

 

 
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