Coronavirus concerns bringing plastic bags back

Plastic bag bans were never a good idea. One reason why is that the reusable bags pushed by nanny-state environmental scolds as alternatives endanger peoples’ lives and health.

Research has long indicated that reusable bags are likely vectors for disease. Blood and other fluids from meats, poultry, fish, and condensation, juices, and pesticides from fruits and vegetables can be absorbed by reusable bags. If not cleaned regularly and stored properly, bacteria -- including e-coli and salmonella -- can take up residence and mold can form. Repeated use can contaminate the users’ food and even the food of others as the contaminated reusable bags come into contact with grocery conveyor belts and the hands of employees. In addition, unlike non-porous, sterile plastic bags, microbes, and viruses like the coronavirus can cling to and linger on porous reusable bags.

Despite these facts,  environmental lobbyists concerned about plastic pollution to the exclusion of other environmental and public health problems have forced a number of cities and states to ban plastic bags in recent years. California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and most recently Washington state banned single-use plastic bags in one form or another. In other states, some cities have enacted local bans.

But now many governors and mayors, looking for ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, are suspending their plastic bag bans. For instance, Oregon has placed a hold on its plastic bag ban. In Maine, a plastic bag ban scheduled to take effect on Earth Day, April 22, was delayed by Gov. Janet Mills until Jan. 15, 2021. And, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu directed all retailers to use single-use bags for the time being and not allow the use reusable bags in their stores.

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered the 139 municipalities with restrictions on single-use bags to overturn those laws, telling WBUR, “[f]rom now on, reusable bags are prohibited and all regulations on plastic bag bans will be lifted.”

In New Jersey, a bill to ban plastic bags statewide failed after the legislature shelved it amid concerns about public health. Instead, the legislature is now considering a bill to suspend local ordinances banning plastic bags.

Cities ranging from Bellingham, Washington, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, have also imposed a hiatus on their bans.

To protect the health of their customers and employees, many grocery stores had begun unilaterally limiting or preventing the use of reusable bags in their stores, even before governments acted.

For instance, Albertson’s, Target, and Trader Joe’s, are letting customers use their own bags only if they sack their groceries themselves. Other stores are banning their use entirely.

Plastic bag manufacturers and the plastic industry in general, who have long pointed out that plastic bags are the least likely form of packaging to retain or spread disease, are suggesting the federal government overturn plastic bag bans nationwide.

“We are asking that the Department of Health and Human Services investigate this issue and make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics,” said Tony Radoszewski, CEO of the Plastics Industry Association CEO in a March 18 letter sent to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar. “We ask that the department speak out against bans on these products as a public safety risk and help stop the rush to ban these products by environmentalists and elected officials that puts consumers and workers at risk.”

“Single-use plastic bags provide a sanitary and convenient way to carry our groceries home while protecting supermarket employees and customers from whatever is lurking on reusable bags,” Radoszewski wrote in a post on the trade group’s website. “As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital. We live longer, healthier and better because of single-use plastics.”

Plastic bag bans rob consumers of choice. Alternative reusable bags are worse for the environment than plastic bags because they use more energy and resources and produce more greenhouse gases, pollution, and waste in their manufacture, transport, and disposal. And, as elected officials are finally taking seriously, plastic bag bans are bad for our health. That’s three strikes. Plastic bag bans should be out!

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. ( is a senior fellow on energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.

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