In the last decade, bans and taxes on single-use plastic bags have been enacted in a number of states including California, Hawaii and Massachusetts and cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., as shoppers switched to reusable bags. Now, some major grocery chains are not allowing shoppers to bring reused bags and lawmakers in a number of jurisdictions are rescinding the bans temporarily, citing health concerns prompted by the the coronavirus pandemic.
While scientists say the coronavirus mainly spreads through close person to person interactions, very little is known about the whether bags of any type transmit disease, says UC Davis microbiologist Jonathan Eisen. “If someone comes in with a contaminated reusable grocery bag and puts it on to the counter and then someone is bagging with that, it certainly seems like there is a chance, it’s probably very low, but a chance that there might be some transmission there.”
sBut Eisen says store-provided plastic and paper bags could also harbor germs. “I think in general surfaces, bags, counters and other things are not the biggest risk to worry about,” he says, while protecting the people who work at grocery stores by giving them masks and putting up shields “clearly seems to be way more important in terms of mitigating risk.”
Nevertheless, plastics manufacturers are calling on the government to condemn the bans as “a public safety risk” and issue a public statement recognizing the “health and safety benefits” of single-use plastic bags. “The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many Americans, businesses and government officials to realize that single-use plastics are often the safest choice,” Tony Radoszewsk, who leads the Plastics Industry Association, wrote in a March 18 letter to the Department of Health and Human Services.