In the face of an all-consuming threat to public health, Will Jawando turned his attention to plastic bags.
As a councilmember for Montgomery County, Maryland – just north of Washington, DC – Jawando saw people flocking to grocery stores and heard their concerns about the coronavirus spreading via shared surfaces, especially reusable shopping bags.
So he made a pitch to the county council: Suspend the county’s five-cent fee on single-use shopping bags, which has been in place since 2012, so clerks and shoppers feel safe about something they all have to touch in the store.
It was an unlikely move for an environmentalist who sports an endorsement from the local Sierra Club. Perhaps unlikelier, given what’s happening elsewhere, is that he reversed course a week later, pulling his proposal after he and fellow councilmembers decided the move would be costly and do little to address public health. All in all, it was a relatively drama-free decision.
“It had the potential to be adverse,” Jawando says, pointing to heated debates in other places around single-use shopping bags. “It’s easy for this to get caught up in that larger debate, pre-Covid, and I was working hard to try to avoid that.”
Over the last decade, plastic bags have been a battleground issue for state and local authorities across the US. Progressive cities large and small have moved to ban or tax the bags for environmental reasons, often only to be overruled by more conservative state legislatures. Fifteen states currently ban local governments from placing restrictions on plastic bags.
This year was supposed to mark a turning point, though.
Four US states – Oregon, Maine, New York and Vermont – were set to impose new bans on single-use plastic bags, as was Philadelphia, America’s sixth-largest city. Connecticut added a 10-cent fee on each bag. And two more states, Delaware and Washington, are preparing for their own bans to take effect next year. There was even a bill in the US Congress – a symbolic if unlikely effort to nationalise the issue.
But momentum for the environmental cause hit a big, pandemic-sized roadblock. Most cities and states that were about to ban the bags have put their plans on hold. Grocers issued pleas for help, saying they were already swamped trying to handle the emergency at hand.
New York state has now delayed its ban three times, from 1 March to at least mid-June (the first delay was in response to a lawsuit from a plastic bag maker). Maine, whose ban was set for Earth Day, 22 April, delayed until January. Philadelphia, set to begin in July, also punted to January. As it stands, Vermont is still on course for July, though grocery stores are pushing for a delay there as well.
Places that had long ago imposed bans are changing their tune, too. California suspended its rules for 60 days. Boston said essential businesses can now use plastic bags during the state of emergency. The District of Columbia isn’t enforcing its five-cent fee. San Francisco, the first major US city to ban plastic bags, now says customers can’t bring reusable shopping bags into grocery stores at all. Massachusetts and New Hampshire have done the same.
Supporters of the ban-the-bag movement say they understand the need to allay fears about reusable bags right now. But some also worry that what’s happening is the result of misinformation and opportunism from the plastics industry.
“I think they’re taking advantage of the situation,” says Chris Bray, a state senator in Vermont and the lead author of the bill that banned single-use plastic bags there.
Starting in January, plastic-bag maker Novolex began warning that there wouldn’t be enough paper bags for New York shoppers when the plastic ban took effect. At the same time, the company warned that the coronavirus was causing supply chain issues in China that would lead to a shortage of reusable bags.
Then, on 18 March – during the initial wave of lockdown orders in many US cities and states – the Plastics Industry Association sent a letter asking the US Department of Health and Human Services to “make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics”. The letter said bans on plastic bags are a threat to public safety, and asked the department to “help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials”. A spokesperson for the Plastics Industry Association did not respond to a request for comment.
“It was just such a shocking exploitation of a really serious health issue,” says Judith Enck, a senior fellow at Bennington College and a former regional administrator at the US Environmental Protection Agency. “I want [HHS Secretary] Alex Azar finding ventilators for New York City and finding more PPE for nurses, and the plastics industry has the audacity to write to them and ask them to speak out against plastic bans.”
There’s limited research about reusable bags and the new coronavirus specifically, but debates almost always feature one key study about other pathogens on reusable shopping bags.
In a 2011 study, researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that reusable shopping bags can accumulate and transfer dangerous bacteria and viruses including E. coli and norovirus. The bags were found to pick up pathogens from all over: grocery store counters, car seats and bathroom floors as well as items stored inside them, like raw meats, produce, shoes or gym clothes.
The study concluded that pathogens from reusable shopping bags can contaminate food and transfer to human hands. Washing reusable bags can kill almost all of the bacteria found there, the researchers discovered, but almost nobody cleans their reusable bags.
This research is what plastic bag companies cite when they say their product is “clean,” as the Plastics Industry Association did in its letter to HHS. A new plastic bag may be clean compared to the average unwashed reusable bag, but that’s not the same as saying plastic bags are universally safer in the context of the coronavirus.
“I regret to observe that the plastics industry has promoted this sort of research that tries to distinguish their product as being clean, and blur the line between clean and sterile,” Bray says.
In fact, plastic bags may not even be the safest kind of disposable bag at the checkout aisle. Findings published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that the coronavirus can last up to three days on plastic surfaces, compared to 24 hours on cardboard, which is considered a close approximation for paper bags.
It’s still an open question as to how easily the virus can be transferred from a surface to a person, and then go on to cause an infection. If that is a threat, it’s likely that plastic bags are at a disadvantage.
“It’s hard to get viruses off of paper,” says Charles Gerba, professor of virology at the University of Arizona.
Gerba co-authored the famous study about germs on reusable bags. He has studied how other viruses transfer from surfaces to human skin, and as a general rule of thumb, porous materials transfer less than hard surfaces.
“If you touch plastic or stainless steel… you get about 40 to 70% of the virus on your hand,” he says. “If you use paper, money, cotton, only about 1% of the virus comes off on your hand.”
Over the years, Gerba’s research has been center stage in heated policy debates about the merits of reusable bags. The plastics industry uses it to argue that bag bans will result in dangerous germs being spread throughout grocery stores – an argument that resonates right now. Environmentalists have attempted to poke holes in the study, saying it’s incomplete and funded by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that represents chemicals and plastics companies.
But Gerba says the finding holds true, regardless of who funded his work.
“Nobody’s found that this isn’t true,” he says. “I have nothing against reusable bags, it’s just people don’t take care of them. … So it’s probably not the best idea in the world to require reusable bags in this situation, because we can’t depend on the individual to maintain the sanitary quality of the bags.”
In fact, he says reusable cloth bags, washed properly, are a fine option at the supermarket, and preferable to paper bags, which require a lot of chemicals and energy to produce and recycle.
At a time when people are relying more than ever on grocery stores – and when they see danger in every person, on every surface, and even in the air itself – it’s no wonder that bags have become a focal point of public health, environmental policy, labour and commerce.
Jawando says it was important to address the concerns of essential workers in the checkout aisle, and make sure they felt safe when handling customers’ items. While Montgomery County, Maryland, has retained its five-cent bag fee, it isn’t actively enforcing it right now, and officials issued new guidance for the checkout process. Clerks are advised to sanitize surfaces. Customers are asked to pack their own reusable bags, so clerks don’t have to touch them. And the county is pushing residents to start washing their reusable bags.
Enck, who is eager to see something similar in New York, sees that as a fair outcome.
“Supermarkets are under a lot of pressure. That’s why I’m not strongly objecting to them going back to plastic bags for a limited period of time,” Enck says. “I am hopeful that we will be back in motion as soon as the immediate health risk subsides.”
Adam Sneed is the managing editor of CityMetric.