Are Reusable Bags Safe to Use in the Age of COVID? 

Posted on September 14, 2020 | Last Updated On: September 14th, 2020 by

For over a decade, reusable grocery bags have been a common life staple, with cities, environmental groups, and voters across certain states, like California, supporting single-use plastic bag bans to reduce massive amounts of plastic pollution turning up in streams, rivers, and oceans increasingly.

For individuals attempting to ban grocery store bags and other single-use plastics, early 2020 seemed to be the turning point.

Hundreds of local governments and eight states had approved bans on plastic and in many places, consumer habits turned towards reusable shopping bags.

However, in the COVID-19 pandemic’s early days, a lot of bans were placed on hold (although there’s now been a push towards reinstating them as the months have passed).

Giant Eagle, in January, attempted to help individuals remember to avoid plastic bag use by offering them fuel perks when they came in with their own reusable bags as a part of the goal of eliminating single-use plastic bags by the year 2025. They were also removed through a pilot program from:

  • Checkouts at the Pittsburgh Waterworks location
  • Various Cleveland area locations
  • A store near Columbus

Twenty million single-use plastic bags were kept from cluttering communities and entering the landfills because of the initiative.

However, when COVID-19 hit the region in February, things changed. There was uncertainty surrounding how COVID-19 spread and questions about how safe reusable bags were.

Recently, to help with curbing the spread of the virus, Bay Area counties’ health officials, along with San Benito and Santa Cruz counties, have prohibited grocery store chains from letting their customers bring in their own shopping bags.

The unknown elements and initial confusion of how the virus spreads between individuals let to an increase in the presence of single-use, disposable items like:

  • Paper coffee cups
  • Plastic bags
  • Takeout containers

In the pandemic’s early stages, this was understandable since scientists couldn’t say with absolute certainty that bringing things into grocery stores like reusable bags wouldn’t be a transmitter for the virus. There’s now enough reason to believe reusable items, when hygienically used, don’t raise the risk of transmission.

An association of 119 public health professionals, including virologists and epidemiologists, in June, responded to the disturbing increase in disposable items and plastic use by releasing a statement that basically stated that based on the best health professional guidance and science available, it’s clear reusable items could be safely used when basic hygiene was involved.

The evidence so far suggests:

  •  COVID-19 doesn’t survive on a soft surface (like fabric).
  • It does survive on hard surfaces like door handles and elevator buttons that are touched frequently.

She also stated the virus’s 72-hour life on plastic has gained much attention, but those scientists who made this discovery found less than 0.1% of the beginning virus material remained by 72 hours, which means an infection isn’t likely.

While this study didn’t clearly answer the reusable bag question, it could inform a decision regarding them.

Clearwateraction.org reports that studies indicate using a freshly washed reusable bag is a better choice than using plastic grocery bags, where a virus can live longer on its surface.

The Huffington Post published an article by Jeff Nelken, a food safety expert, stating you should clean reusable grocery bags each time you use them for them to be safe, particularly during these times with the COVID-19 coronavirus. Fortunately, it’s fairly simple to do.

Also, if you’re carrying disinfectant wipes around with you, wipe down the reusable bags thoroughly. The disinfectant, however, should be Environmental Protection Agency approved and you should follow the label’s instructions exactly.

For years, the plastics industry has tried to spread doubt in regards to reusable bags with questionable research making them out to be germy threats. It’s not shocking the industry is taking advantage of this public global health emergency by trying to end the efforts towards eliminating single-use plastic bags.

Plastic pollution is an increasing issue. Every year, in the U.S. only 9% of the plastic sold is recycled. Up to 13 million metric tons of plastic, each year, end up in the world’s oceans where it kills:

  • Sea turtles
  • Fish
  • Dolphins
  • Whales
  • Other sea life

Plastic can last for hundreds of years. As things are going now, one study recently found by the year 2050, the ocean will contain more plastic than it does fish, with most of the plastic being broken into trillions of small toxic confetti pieces.

Groups such as the Manhattan Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and American Energy Alliance, which all have ties with the petroleum and plastics industries, have been spreading rumors that warn that reusable bags could help the COVID-19 virus spread. However, these rumors are based on research that really found the virus stays longer on plastic surfaces than it does on other types of materials, not addressing reusable grocery bags that could be constructed with various materials.

In a recent editorial, the Los Angeles Times wrote that reusable bags don’t pose any more risk than anything else that can come in contact with groceries and aren’t washed properly, which includes shoppers’ hands. And a group of physicians, scientists, and other health professionals recently made a statement about reusable containers and bags’ safety, making note that reusables could be safely used by minimizing contact and implementing basic cleaning procedures.

The professionals further describe best practices for using reusables during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasize why reusable alternatives to disposable single-use items don’t represent a substantial risk for virus transmission.

Many Clark County grocery stores, despite earlier limiting reusable bags, are again letting customers bring in their own bags with a couple of conditions. They must bag their groceries themselves and avoid placing the bags on any surface workers or other customers might touch directly.

Author: Douglas Lober

Doug Lober is Co-Founder and Chief Product Specialist for ReuseThisBag.com. Lober is a passionate environmentalist with roots in the Southern California surf culture. Over the last 15 years, Lober has launched and supported a number of environmental initiatives around the land, sea, and air. Today, he continues to provide and support the use of eco-friendly promotional products for small, medium, and Fortune 500 companies. You can learn more about his extensive background in the industry on Linkedin.com, Quora.com, Instagram.com, Twitter and Alignable.com

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