Why Some Cities Are Restricting the Use of Reusable Grocery Bags Right Now

updated Mar 27, 2020
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Credit: Jelena Jojic Tomic/Stocksy

Over the last few years, state after state and city after city have banned plastic bag use at grocery stores in favor of encouraging people to bring their own reusable tote bags. However, as the novel coronavirus spreads rapidly around the country, the bans are not only being lifted, but sometimes even flipped completely on their heads: WCVB reports that in Massachusetts, governor Charlie Baker has now banned all reusable bags, and lifted the plastic bag ban and any charges for using single-use bags. The same restriction was already in place in the city of Boston itself.

There is significant evidence that reusable totes didn’t offer quite the environmental advantage that they seemed to when production was factored in, but even beyond that, there has long been evidence of the bags as a vector to make people sick. A few years back, researchers at the University of Arizona found that 97% of shoppers rarely washed their reusable bags, if they ever did. Furthermore, about 75% of shoppers didn’t separate their raw meat from other groceries, leaving the opportunity for cross-contamination to spread bacteria. In the 84 bags that they tested, they found coliform and E.coli bacteria in all but one of them. 

Under normal circumstances, that’s bad, but with the rapid spread of COVID-19 and so much about what surfaces it can live on and how it spreads, it could be dangerous. While COVID-19 is not food-borne, so thus isn’t spread by food, it has been shown to live without a host on various surfaces for as long as 72 hours, so the danger would come from the virus being passed from shopper to checker or vice versa, via the bag. Of course this change and the opportunity to exploit it is not lost on the plastic bag lobbyists: Politico reports that the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asking that they issue a statement that single-use plastics are the safest choice.