Reusable grocery bags, seen by many as a sustainable solution to reduce single-use plastics, may be hindering retailers’ efforts to combat the spread of coronavirus.
Are we seeing health of planet pitted against health of the people? We may be, as more grocery retailers issue statements like this one from Reading, Pa.-based Redner’s Markets:
“We are asking guests to refrain from bringing reusable (eco) bags into stores for use. These bags, while durable for multi-uses can be carriers for the virus and could cause further spread. Our cashiers will be automatically issuing single use, plastic bags until further notice.”
The mayor of Waterville, Maine, has asked his city council to lift their ban on single-use plastic grocery bags and temporarily prohibit use of reusable bags to help contain the spread of COVID-19.
At least one official in New York state is asking his legislative colleagues to do the same, amid fears that consumers are not reliably washing their reusable shopping bags between trips. Such behavior can spread unwanted germs from floors to tables to supermarket conveyor belts under normal conditions, but now it could negate any efforts in the current fight to stop the coronavirus from spreading.
To be sure, arguments against bans on single-use plastic bags over the past decade – that they’re less likely to harbor and spread pathogens than reusable bags – have resurfaced in light of the current outbreak. And the dilemma comes at a time when local and regional plastic bag bans are gaining momentum (New York City’s took effect March 1).
A new report from BloombergNEF found that “concerns around food hygiene due to COVID-19 could increase plastic packaging intensity.” And The Wall Street Journal went so far as to say that plastic bag bans have backfired.
Of course, reusable products can be perfectly safe, provided they are properly cleaned and sanitized. But in a crisis such as the one currently unfolding, when reusable goods carry a perception of being unsanitary, who can be sure how sanitary these items are? Even green-centric Starbucks banned the use of reusable coffee cups in its stores in the early days of the outbreak.
Meanwhile, grocery retailers are in various stages of transitioning away from single-use plastics. The Kroger Co., the nation’s largest traditional grocer, has committed to phasing out plastic grocery bags by 2025, one division at a time. (A message seeking comment on whether the pandemic would delay this goal was not immediately answered.)
At Landover, Md.-based Giant Food, a banner owned by Ahold Delhaize, a message this week to consumers included this appeal: “The increased shopping has put a strain on shopping bag supplies. Though we continue to have bags available and will continue to replenish our bag supply, it would be helpful for us, and our environment, if customers remember to bring reusable bags when shopping.”
Asked if the retailer would rethink that request in light of the outbreak, Communications and Community Relations Manager Daniel Wolk told me, “At this time, we are not changing any of our policies or asking differently of our customers. We will continue to follow CDC guidance very closely and will change our operations in accordance with their advice.”
Obviously, it’s everyone’s responsibility to help promote a safe shopping environment and do whatever they can to minimize the impact of the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has forced everyone to adjust their priorities. If that includes putting single-use plastic bans on the back burner, so be it.