Everyone loves the party game/icebreaker “two truths and a lie.”
Can you identify which of the following is NOT true about plastic bags?
A. Single-use plastic bags make up a very small percentage of plastic waste.
B. Reusable bags aren’t sanitary.
C. Plastic bag bans reduce plastic pollution.
Let’s take these statements one at a time:
Environmentalists often claim that single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment and account for a large percentage of land and ocean pollution. Yet, the facts don’t bear this out. In fact, plastic bags make up a very small portion of plastic pollution.
According to the Reason Foundation, plastic bags make up less than one percent of visible litter and only 0.4 percent of municipal waste. And of the 79,000 tons of ocean pollution that makes up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a 2018 study concluded that 46 percent of it is made up of fishing nets. The rest is largely composed of other fishing gear, such as ropes, traps, crates, and baskets.
While some plastic bags do end up as litter or ocean pollution, most of those bags started out as plastic recycling. As author John Tierney recently explained in the Wall Street Journal, plastic bags often prove too expensive to sort and clean, so the plastic bags are shipped to countries in Southeast Asia, where they are often discarded rather than reused.
Multiple studies have shown reusable bags can harbor dangerous bacteria. A 2010 study from the University of Arizona found bacteria in 99 percent of the reusable bags. Of those, 50 percent were contaminated with coliform bacteria; eight percent carried E. coli, which suggests fecal contamination. A 2018 study, published in the Journal of Environmental Health, found that viruses and bacteria can survive in reusable bags for up to nine days.
In a separate study, researchers found that the bacteria build-up on reusable bags was 300 percent higher than what is considered safe and that storing reusable bags in a the hot trunk of a vehicle caused the bacteria to grow 10 times faster. Another 2018 study found that reusable bags often spread infectious viruses from private homes to supermarket grocery carts and checkout stands. And researchers in California found that one contaminated reusable bag can cross-contaminate any surface with which it comes into contact. That puts nine out of ten shoppers at risk of infection.
University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba, who co-authored the 2010 University of Arizona study told the Huffington Post, “Bacteria levels found in reusable bags were significant enough to cause a wide range of serious health problems and even death,” adding that they “… are a particular danger for young children, who are especially vulnerable to foodborne illnesses.”
If you’re going to be vigilant and wash and disinfect your reusable grocery bag after each use, and not store it in the truck of your car, you should feel safe to use them. Otherwise, use plastic bags.
Single use plastic bags are often criticized as an environmental hazard. Cities and grocery stores are banning them and consumers are told to simply carry a reusable bag to the store instead. Yet, this may not result in actual reductions in plastic use.
A 2019 study done by University of Sydney found that while plastic bag bans did reduce the use of single-use plastic bags (the type given away at grocery stores and for carryout food), the sale of more expensive plastic garbage bags after the bans went into effect skyrocketed. The small, 4-gallon plastic garbage bags saw the biggest spike.
Those store-bought trash bags are thicker and use more plastic than grocery store and carryout grocery bags. So whatever plastic was reduced by the ban was regained in the form of thicker, more expensive garbage bags.
The study also found that in cities where plastic bag bans were in place, the use of paper bags surged, which resulted in about 80 million pounds of extra paper trash per year. Paper waste takes up more room in landfills and lasts longer in those landfills than plastic waste.
In addition, those who push for plastic bag bans fail to recognize that “single-use” bags are often used multiple times. For instance, grocery and carryout plastic bags are commonly reused to line bathroom and kitchen trash cans, carry belongings from one place to another, transport one’s lunch to work, or to dispose of one’s dog’s waste while on a walk.