Just when you think you’re doing something right for the world, along comes the reality slam that exposes the hidden flaw in your righteous endeavor. Remember last year when the dark side of energy-efficient compact florescent light bulbs was exposed, revealing that the bulbs leak mercury when broken, or when you learned that reusable diapers may not be more environmentally friendly than disposables? Now, it turns out that the virtuous recyclable shopping bags that so many of us proudly use might be sewage dumps for bacteria. Or at least, so says the plastics industry.
According to Sporometrics, a Canadian research firm that conducted studies on reusable bags, “The moist, dark, warm interior of a folded reusable bag that has acquired a small amount of water and a trace of food contamination is an ideal incubator for bacteria.” To reach this conclusion, researchers intercepted 24 shoppers on the streets of Toronto and took their reusable bags in exchange for new ones. The bags then underwent swab testing for the presence of bacteria. Also, two unused bags were thrown into the mix.
Not surprisingly, the two unused bags came up clean, but 64 percent of the reusables showed “some level of bacterial contamination.” Seven of the bags had bacteria levels higher than the amount considered safe for drinking water, six had mold, five had yeast, and three showed an elevated coliform count. None had any trace of E. coli or salmonella.
The researchers voiced grave concern over the results, noting that mold on the surface of bags could dislodge and send spores into the air, “creating problems for asthmatics and those with allergies.” The presence of the yeast, they say, represent a ‘miner’s canary’ that confirms that microbes are growing in the bag. And, they warn, the bags can’t be thoroughly cleaned or scrubbed without degrading, plus they can’t be dried thoroughly, leading to a moist environment perfect for the growth of unsavory contaminants. Even worse, just because no bags tested positive for E. coli and salmonella doesn’t mean that there’s no threat, the researchers assert. “E. coli associated with severe disease could be present in small but a significant portion of the bags if sufficient numbers were tested.” “Also,” they say, “it is consistent with everything that is known about salmonella ecology that it would also be present on rare occasions.”
Just in case reviewers don’t get the message about how deadly reusable bags can be, the researchers conclude their report by stating that, “In future cases of food poisoning, family doctors and public health officials should add the reusable grocery bag to the list of possible sources of contamination to be investigated.”
But wait! Before you go chucking your reusable bags into the recycle bin, consider who sponsored the bag research. The Environment and Plastic Industry Council was the funding organization, a subcommittee of the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. No wonder the tone of doom when discussing the reusables, which apparently are cutting into the single-use plastic bag market. No wonder the comment right in the summation of the report, “When the control bags were purchased in-store for this study, grocery store staff remarked to the investigators that they found some reusable bags remarkably soiled in appearance and were reluctant to touch them.” And no wonder the conclusion: “The swab testing demonstrates that single use plastic shopping bags and other first use carry bag options are more hygienic than reusables.” Finally, no wonder the warning that gym bags and diaper bags and other totes — perhaps your luggage — may be disease factories, too, and the general implication that only a world reliant on throwaway plastic bags for carrying goods will be a safe one.
This doesn’t mean that reusable bags in fact offer pristine environments. Certainly, it makes sense to wash out your reusable bags if something spills, if they get dirty, if you’ve been carrying meat or eggs or fish in them — just as it makes sense to wash your clothing and your car and anything else that gets dirty. It makes sense to thoroughly dry your bags, too, now that the point about bacteria breeding in the moist folds of the bags has been made. But as professor of microbiology and infectious disease Harley Rotbart from the University of Colorado School of Medicine says, “[The study is like] a classic middle school science fair experiment where swabs are taken to random surfaces and, shockingly, germs are found on those surfaces. Germs are everywhere [heck, handbags and computer keyboards are veritable pathogen factories compared to grocery bags], and under certain circumstances, germs on surfaces can cause human infections. Common sense has to prevail. Disgusting reusable bags should be washed in hot water (and bleach).”
And so what if regular washing degrades them over time. Just buy a new one when the old one gives out. Or collect a supply of freebies now being given out almost everywhere. I just got one from a chiropractor last week — complete with his name and office address imprinted on it.
The alternative, using new plastic bags for every purchase, though “more hygienic,” certainly isn’t more healthy. To manufacture plastic bags, industry burns thousands of barrels of oil daily — the US alone uses 12 million barrels annually — consuming scarce resources and adding a major load to atmospheric pollution in the process. Plastic bags barely break down in the environment, so the more of them that we use, the more we create a landfill nightmare. It can take hundreds of years, even a thousand years, for a plastic bag to break down, and in the process of decomposing, the bag gives off toxins that seep into soils, lakes, rivers, and the oceans. The bags devastate marine life, killing over 100,000 marine mammals and turtles each year by strangling and choking them. In other words, plastic bags poison the environment, and the health effects certainly will boomerang back to consumers over the long haul.
A number of countries including South Africa, Taiwan and Bangladesh have already banned plastic bags, and Ireland imposes a heavy tax on them. But still, each year between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags get used, and most of those bags will certainly end up in a landfill or just get dumped on the ground or into the water.
The Environment and Plastics Industry Council says, “The industry strongly supports reduction and reuse and recognizes use of reusables as good environmental practice, but it does not want to see these initiatives inadvertently compromise public health and safety.” Nice sentiment, but given the facts, it doesn’t hold up.