To Bag or Not To Bag: Reusable Bags in Ottawa During COVID-19

by Barbara Sibbald and Stuart Kinmond, Co-chairs, Single-Use Plastics Group, Centretown Community Association     

Safety is vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, but so is accurate information.
Lately, there has been a resurgence of support for single-use plastic (SUP) bags, even though there is no scientific evidence that they are more hygienic than reusable bags.

This has generated controversy about the use of SUP bags vs reusable bags for shopping.

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New York City has opted to delay enforcement of its plastic bag ban until June. Read more here.

Some Ottawa grocery stores won’t allow reusable bags on their premises, while others do allow them, provided customers pack their own groceries.

But some jurisdictions like Montreal have stood by their bans on SUP bags. That city permits the use of reusable bags if customers pack them. Other jurisdictions, such as the states of New Hampshire and Maine, have temporarily rescinded bans.

This may be fueled by Plastics Industry Association’s lobby during this time of crisis to get rid of bans on SUP bags.  In mid-March it asked the US government to declare that banning SUP bags during a pandemic is a health threat. The industry cites a study from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University which found reusable plastic bags can contain bacteria if not washed properly. That study, now 10 years old and based

grocery bags
Image of reusable grocery bags used in the Arizona University press release about the study conducted by Williams et al., 2010.

on a sample of only 84 bags, was funded by the American Chemistry Council, which represents major plastics manufacturers. This is not robust evidence, yet it has prompted action.

Editor’s Note: the study was designed to assess whether foods which carried E. coli (i.e. meat) could contaminate reusable bags, which could then contaminate other foods (such as produce). For those of us who don’t eat meat, or who get their meat wrapped separately, this wouldn’t be an issue anyway. See original study here.

So how do we move forward?

It would be prudent to begin with what we know:  we know there is no evidence or independent studies that re-usable plastic bags are responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Whatever bags you choose to use, handling is critical to your health. Studies show that COVID-19 virus can stay alive on plastic and metal for three days, but only one day on paper or cardboard.  Wash your hands thoroughly after handling any bags.

Some practical advice for Ottawa shoppers

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Are SUP bags safer from a public health standpoint? There’s no real evidence saying so, but many stores in Ottawa are currently banning reusable bags. Photo: PERC

Reusable bags
Reusable bags are packed by the consumer, so the bag is not touched by the cashier.
Both cloth and plastic reusable bags should be washed regularly. They can be put into a washing machine.  Do not put plastic bags in the dryer. Shoppers with cars who want to avoid single-use bags, can load their groceries back into their shopping cart after paying, wheel the cart to their car and pack the groceries into reusable bags in their trunk.

Backpacks
Some stores are allowing customers to pack groceries in backpacks. Like reusable bags, backpacks should be washed regularly.

Single-use plastic bags
Stores using SUP bags will pack them for the customer.  Customers should keep in mind that if SUP bags are handled by someone who is infected, the bags could carry the virus.

Paper bags
If available at the store, cashiers will pack these for the customers. Again, customers should remember that if the paper bag is handled by someone who is infected, the bag could harbour the virus. The advantage with paper is that the virus can only survive up to one day.

Moving forward

Although the public attention is currently focused on health security more than environmental issues, once this pandemic is over we will still be faced with ever increasing pollution caused by unnecessary single-use plastic products like plastic bags.  The commitments that governments have made will reassert themselves.  Environment Canada will not be stopping its scientific assessment of the health and environmental impacts of micro and macro plastics.  The assessment might take a bit longer if resources are being reassigned to address the pandemic but work will not be stopping.

Editor’s Note: If you’re concerned about carrying items home, in whatever sort of container you do so, or touching things that may be contaminated with the virus, remember that not touching your face until you’ve thoroughly washed your hands, after handling items you’re not sure about, is highly effective. Viral particles enter the body through the mucous membranes, not through unbroken skin.

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Warnings and cautions posted outside Massine’s Independent Grocer on Bank St, including the update that reusable bags are not allowed in the store at this time. Photo: PERC

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Have you had experiences trying to use reusable bags during the pandemic? What do you think about the plastic vs reusable bag question right now? Share with us in the comments!

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