With grocery stores being one of the few places still open during COVID-19 lockdowns, disposable plastic bags are making a comeback as some people fear that reusable bags could spread the disease. Before the pandemic, a growing number of governments banned single-use plastic bags in an effort to cut down on waste. But as the novel coronavirus has spread around the globe, people have gotten leery about coming in close contact with other people and their possessions, including reusable bags. On March 31st, New Hampshire became the first state in the US to temporarily ban reusable bags during the pandemic.
“For whatever reason, people seem to get very fired up about grocery bags,” says Meghan May, a professor of microbiology and infectious disease at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine. “Ordinarily I use [reusable bags] all the time because I live in a beach town and a clean ocean is really important,” May tells The Verge. But now she and many others are thinking twice.
Like pretty much everything else right now, reusable bags should probably be handled more carefully to minimize the risk of transmitting disease to other people. At the same time, there has been no evidence so far that using reusable grocery bags have been responsible for spreading the novel coronavirus.
We don’t really know how long the novel coronavirus can persist on reusable bags. The best data experts have is from one study that found that the virus could stay viable on plastic for up to three days in lab conditions. (That means shoppers may want to be careful when handling disposable plastic bags, too, environmental advocates contend.) That research didn’t look into how the virus fares on fabric, so we can’t apply its findings directly to cloth bags, according to May.
Shoppers should still take precautions with reusable bags, despite the lack of data, May advises. “One would want to err on the side of caution here because we know [the virus] can survive on many different types of surfaces,” she says. “We should probably assume that it can be transmitted that way until someone demonstrates that it can’t.”
One way to stop the spread of germs is to wash reusable bags before and after each use. (That’s in addition to washing your hands before and after you go to the store, avoiding touching your face, wiping down baskets and carts, and bagging your own items.) Plastic and nylon bags can be cleaned with soap and water, then sprayed or wiped down with a diluted bleach solution or disinfectant, according to recommendations from North Carolina State University. Make sure to clean both the inside and outside of the bag and let them air dry before storing or using them, the university adds, and cloth bags can be washed like laundry, then they should be dried on the warmest setting.
But the virus could transfer quickly from one person to an item they’ve been in close contact with, like a bag, reusable or otherwise, May points out. If an infected person hands the bag to someone else, they risk passing along the virus. The person who faces the most risk, according to May, is the grocery store worker interacting with many customers throughout his or her shift. “They have to touch [the reusable bag], handle it and pack things into it, and then they have to then turn around and do that with the next customer that comes in their line,” May says. “The person at least risk is the person who owns the bag.”
That’s why some grocery stores and states are turning back to disposable bags: they simply aren’t handled quite as much, so there’s less uncertainty over where they’ve been.
But protecting public health doesn’t have to be at odds with efforts to stem the flood of plastics filling landfills and collecting in the ocean, environmental advocates say. “If stores, particularly workers, want to keep themselves as safe as possible and limit the bags coming in because they don’t know if people wash them, certainly a temporary pause on that, I think that’s understandable,” Ivy Schlegel, a senior research specialist for Greenpeace USA, says. But that “pause” shouldn’t be permanent, says Schlegel. She has followed the plastics industry’s history of fighting environmental reforms by claiming that reusable bags are unsanitary. She sees the industry seizing the opportunity now to push its own agenda.
A frequently cited 2011 study that found bacteria in seldom-washed reusable bags was actually underwritten by a fossil fuel and chemical industry group, the American Chemistry Council. It was cited in a March 18th letter that the Plastics Industry Association penned to the Department of Health and Human Services asking that the department “speak out against bans on [single-use plastic] products as a public safety risk.”
“Some people will call it disaster capitalism,” says Schlegel. “Using this moment where everything is in chaos and people are legitimately concerned about public health to turn back the clock to go back to a world where plastic is the norm, rather than right now where reusables are becoming the norm in many places.”
The plastic pollution problem isn’t going away anytime soon. A plastic grocery bag adrift in the ocean can take up to 20 years to decompose. A plastic bottle could stick around for up to 450 years, according to estimates from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Less than 10 percent of all plastics have actually been recycled. The industry knew all along that recycling wouldn’t solve the environmental harms posed by plastic, but it continued to promote it as a viable solution anyway, according to a joint investigation by PBS Frontline and NPR published this week.
There are ways to limit plastic waste during the COVID-19 pandemic. May recommends simply carrying groceries straight from the basket or cart to your car if that’s possible. Paper bags are another alternative; they are still single-use, but at least they’re compostable. And Schlegel tells The Verge that one way to make reusable bags cleaner and more convenient in the future could be to implement municipal programs that pick up residents’ reusable bags, sanitize them, and then return them to stores for reuse. Those solutions might not be available everywhere during this pandemic, but they’re worth thinking about as we prepare for what comes next. In the long run, protecting public health and the planet usually go hand in hand.