Health concerns are trumping environmental worries as U.S. states and cities reverse single-use plastic bans. As shoppers worry about catching germs from everything and everyone in grocery stores, and restaurants move from dine-in to take-out, bags and containers have become a big issue.
Maine Governor Janet Mills announced on March 17 that the state will delay a single-use plastic bag ban that had been slated to start on April 22. “These emergency measures will support the state’s response to the coronavirus and mitigate its spread in Maine,” Mills told Plastic News. Brookline, Massachusetts has suspended its ban on polystyrene containers, and Nick Isgro, mayor of Waterville, Maine, wants to ban shoppers from bringing their own reusable bags.
“These reusable tote bags can sustain the COVID-19 and flu viruses — and spread the viruses throughout the store,” Isgro said on his Facebook page. “Be assured this is not to re-litigate our current ordinance. … This should be seen as a temporary public safety measure.”
While some environmental organizations claim that properly washed reusable bags are as safe as disposable bags, experts warn that shoppers seldom follow hygienic protocol. A 2011 study by Loma Linda University and University of Arizona randomly collected bags from shoppers entering grocery stores in California and Arizona. They learned that consumers rarely, if ever, wash their bags. Almost all of the bags collected were covered in bacteria, including E. coli on 12% of bags. Those bags that had carried leaky packets of meat and were stored in car trunks for 2 hours had tenfold the bacterial growth. However, hand- or machine-washing can reduce bag bacteria by 99.9%.
Since 2014, eight states — California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont — have enacted some kind of single-use plastic bag ban. Polystyrene bans have also been on the rise. But COVID-19 could change all that.
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