2013.04.03 Plastic bags getting a little vindication

Written by David Green.

By RICH FOLEY

About a year ago, I wrote about some researchers who found serious health risks associated with the use of those cloth shopping bags meant to replace the disposable plastic ones offered for free at many stores. A year later, a ban on plastic bags in Seattle has resulted in more evidence that sacking the single-use plastic bag may not have been the best option.

The main problem with the reusable cloth shopping bags is that they are used multiple times, allowing the accumulation of bacteria that can put your health at risk. Seattle instituted a plastic ban despite a University of Arizona study that found coliform bacteria, including E. coli, in half of the cloth bags tested “at a level significant to cause serious heath problems, even death.”

The study further found that leaving a used cloth shopping bag in a car trunk or in the sun on the back seat could cause a tenfold increase in bacteria growth in as little as two hours. Another study in Canada found bacterial contamination in 64 percent of cloth bags tested, with 40 percent testing positive for mold or yeast. A researcher added that “The presence of fecal matter in some of the reusable bags is particularly concerning.” Sounds pretty appetizing, doesn’t it?

Much of the problem results after raw meat products prone to leaking are carried in the cloth bag at the same time or prior to transporting vegetables or fruits that are then eaten uncooked. Washing the cloth bags after each use would  greatly reduce possible trouble, but factoring in the cost of water, soap and labor and the environmental impact of washing a load of dirty shopping bags every time you shop starts to tip the scale back toward the plastic bag.

The experience of San Francisco’s banning of the plastic bag in 2007 and Seattle’s ban last summer has brought up what one article called “the law of unintended consequences.” In other words, well-meaning folks banning the plastic bag in an effort to help the environment didn’t stop to fully consider the downside of the ban.

A paper was published last fall by Jonathan Klick of the University of Pennsylvania and Joshua Wright of George Mason University, finding that food-borne illnesses in San Francisco have increased by 46 percent since the banning of plastic bags in 2007. Other surrounding counties without a plastic bag ban have shown no such jump in illnesses.

Klick and Wright concluded their research by saying, “Our results suggest that the San Francisco ban led to, conservatively, 5.4 annual additional deaths.” Neither of their two main findings would make much of a case for the use of cloth shopping bags.

The plastic bag ban in Seattle started just last summer, so it’s probably a bit early for any valid research on health effects of the ban. But another of those nagging unintended consequences has already been felt by retailers—a jump in shoplifting.

The problem occurs when “customers” planning to shoplift enter a store with reusable cloth bags. The bags make it much easier to hide items they steal, and even if a store has security personnel or cameras, the customer can always claim they brought the item in with them.

The situation forces store staff to keep a closer eye on customers, a sure way to annoy those not planning to steal. A study by Seattle Public Utilities found than over 20 percent of retail businesses have seen a jump in shoplifting after he introduction of the plastic bag ban.

One Seattle couple who run a grocery store say they’ve lost $3,000 to $4,000 in frozen food plus at least $5,000 in produce to theft since the plastic bag ban. They didn’t even mention losses in laundry detergent, baby items, pharmaceuticals  and alcohol, four of the items most popular among thieves.

The cloth bags seem to have become such an aid to shoplifters that I can’t help but wonder if shoplifters steal them as well. If caught, they could claim they brought all their bags with them as they planned to “buy” a lot of items. 

If any more evidence against cloth shopping bags comes to light, it might result in a demand to ban them and return to plastic bags. Remember, if cloth shopping bags are outlawed, only outlaws will have cloth shopping bags. You heard it here first.

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