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How Coronavirus Is Changing The Bag Ban Debate

by | Posted in: Food Service Packing Supplies Pharmacy Textiles

As part of emergency coronavirus measures, many states, towns and municipalities are revisiting bans on single-use plastic bags, citing hygienic concerns and the possibility that the virus can live on reusable bags.

Some Recent Actions Taken Include:

  • California: On April 22, the Governor of CA issued Executive Order N-54-20 temporarily suspending the state’s plastic bag ban for 60 days.
  • Illinois: Temporarily banned reusable bags at grocery stores.
  • Maine: Postponed plastic bag ban set to start in April 2020 to January 2021.
  • Massachusetts: Temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags and mandated that stores do not charge for plastic or paper bags. Boston will resume the plastic bag ban on October 1, 2020.
  • New Hampshire: Requiring stores to use only single-use paper or plastic bags.
  • New York: Plastic bag ban went into effect March 1 and will finally see enforcement beginning October 19, 2020.
  • Oregon: Temporarily suspends ban on single-use plastic “t-shirt” bags with no fee to customers.

Other states, however, are moving forward with plans for future bag bans possibly indicating these recent reversals are not here to stay. In March, the governor of Washington passed a statewide plastic bag ban which will go into effect January 2021.

Customer Safety Is Reframing The Debate

Due to the COVID-19 virus, hygiene has taken priority over sustainability. Some retail pharmacies, grocery chains and stores such as Target, are limiting the use of reusable bags to self-checkout stations where shoppers bag their own items. Other stores like HYVEE, Meijer, and Trader Joe’s have taken a more aggressive approach and banned the use of reusable bags in-store, providing paper bags or single-use plastic bags at no additional cost to the customer.

In a recent letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Plastics Industry Association asked the department to issue a public statement endorsing the idea that single-use plastics are the safest choice to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They cite studies that conclude the virus can live on the surfaces of reusable bags, which could expose and infect more people. Critics argue the plastic industry has misrepresented findings from those studies to exploit the pandemic and bring back the single-use plastic bag. Changing the bans at this point, critics argue, may not have a significant impact on slowing down the spread of the virus but instead will further contribute to an environmental crisis caused by an overreliance on plastics.

The Science Behind Bag Hygiene Studies Has Been Inconclusive

The studies most frequently cited by the plastic industry and other critics of plastic bag bans were conducted by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University. The University found during their 2011 study that under certain conditions, reusable bags can be a breeding ground for foodborne bacteria. This risk increases when users do not wash their reusable bags frequently enough. A 2018 study conducted by the University tested a hypothesized Norovirus transmission via reusable grocery bags within a grocery store, but to date, there has been no testing for the COVID-19 virus on reusable bag surfaces.

The U.S National Institute of Health study found that the coronavirus can remain on plastics and stainless-steel surfaces for up to three days, and cardboard and paper for up to one day.

As of April 7, 2020, the WHO has not confirmed how long the COVID-19 virus survives on surfaces and that it may vary depending on specific situations, such as type of surface, humidity or temperature of the environment.

Will These Changes Set A New Precedent?

Whether or not the current move away from reusable bags will help slow the spread of this pandemic in the short-term, the long-term effects it has on the industry remains to be seen. For now, it is essential to continue research on the longevity and spread of viruses on surfaces like plastic, paper and textiles, and to stay abreast of local legislation changes. To find out what your state, town or municipality is doing contact your local legislature’s office.

To download and read our full whitepaper on Sustainability & Bag Compliance, click here.

To contact us or receive updates and industry insights from Broadway, click here.


Original article posted on April 14th. California State information updated September 22, 2020.

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