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May Common Sense Prevail: New York Delays Enforcement of Plastic Bag Ban

New York State’s ban on single-use plastic grocery bags was slated to start on Monday, March 1st, but a state court has just put a hold off on enforcing the ban at least until April, which is good news.  As I’ve noted many times, such bans are counter-productive because replacement products are worse for the environment, requiring more energy and making more pollution that the thin and convenient plastic bags. Bans also needlessly harm small businesses.

Apparently, 14,000 small shops, particularly small grocery stores referred to as New York City “bodegas,” managed to get a restraining order as part of their legal case against the ban. The bodegas along with a plastics maker are suing the state because they maintain the ban disproportionally hurts minority-owned small businesses.

It’s unclear if these lawsuits could eventually overturn the ban, but with any luck the sluggish nature of the legal system can hold off the ban long enough for policymakers to come to their senses and repeal this crazy, anti-consumer law.

Thus far, too few New York lawmakers have deployed common sense when it comes to plastic bags, but maybe now they will heed the warnings of researchers who are concerned about the impact on public health. For example, according to Kings County Politics, Clemson University Professor Robert M. Kimmel recently warned the New York’s State Department of Health that reusable bags often harbor dangerous viruses and bacteria and could even carry the coronavirus. He suggested that the plastic bag ban be halted until after the coronavirus is under control. 

Whether reusable bags could become a significant carrier of the coronavirus remains to be seen, but there are good reasons to fear they will harbor other equally dangerous bacteria and viruses transmitted from carrying meat and produce. Coronavirus aside, we know for sure that pathogens like E. coli are serious and can be deadly.

Kimmel, who is the author of a 2014 life-cycle study on plastics, explains:

In this study, we noted the evidence that had accumulated at that time that reusable bags could easily and were highly likely to be contaminated with bacteria and viruses and could transfer this contamination to people by contact with supermarket check-out conveyors, grocery carts, kitchen counters and other surfaces.

The health departments of many jurisdictions, including New York State, have therefore strongly urged consumers to frequently wash their reusable bags, even after every use, to reduce the likelihood of such transmission. Unfortunately, a study of consumer behavior conducted in 2014 by Edelman Berland showed that the vast majority of consumers do not head this advice.

If people use reusable bags, they should wash them after every use, says Kimmel, but that’s rarely the case. Other researchers report that when they survey reusable bag users very few say they ever wash the bags. Charles P. Gerba of the University of Arizona’s Soil, Water and Environmental Science Department explains:

We have been involved in two studies on the potential for microbial contamination of the bags by fecal bacteria. We collected over 100 reusable bags from grocery shoppers entering stories. We found a significant percentage to contain fecal bacteria, including Escherichia coli. We also interviewed shoppers concerning the use of the reusable bags and found that only 3% shoppers ever washed their reusable bags, likely explaining the large numbers of fecal bacteria we detected. Bags become contaminated with fecal bacteria from raw meat products or use from carrying other items which could be fecally contaminated.

Plastic bag bans are not only bad for the environment, they are bad public health policy. It’s time for lawmakers to wake up before people start getting sick from dirty pathogen laden reusable bags. Proper disposal, not bans are the answer to litter problems.