Ban Bags, Get Sick

The bags issue is really getting absurd in California.A friend of mine wrote this piece that I want to pass along to everyone.
By James Broussard

Most everyone supports a clean environment.  But many environmentalists fail to recognize the need for balance.  One of the latest examples of environmental extremism is the campaign to punish or even ban the use of plastic bags.

The Philadelphia City Council has turned down a proposal to ban plastic bags, but proponents promise to try again.  A bill pending before the state legislature would outlaw plastic bags statewide.

We all have come to rely on the ubiquitous shopping bag.  How else would we get our purchases home?

The very fact that so many people use bags has caused some environmentalists to target them.  The state of California is considering taxing plastic bags.  A few cities even have banned them.

Of course, most environmentalists don’t expect people to carry their groceries home in their pockets.  But some activists, backed by the paper bag industry, are trying to force consumers to use paper sacks.

Yet people commonly reuse plastic bags as everything from trash holders to pooper scoopers.  Plastic bags also require less energy to make.

Paper sacks take up far more room in the trash than do plastic bags.  And in today’s airtight landfills, paper bags don’t degrade.  So some environmentalists are pushing cloth bags instead.

Yet plastic bags are eco-friendly as well as convenient.  California has initiated a recycling program for plastic bags, reducing their environmental impact.

In contrast, cloth bags are expensive—few retailers give them away.  Moreover, one or two aren’t enough for the average family, especially for grocery shopping.  The cost adds up.

If you forget to bring them with you, or make an impromptu stop, you’ve got nothing to hold your purchases.

Worse, cloth bags turn out to be a convenient home to bacteria, mold, yeast, and even fecal matter.

A new study by three independent labs found significant contamination of reusable cloth bags. Richard Summerbell, director of research at Sporometrics, Inc., warned that “the main risk is food poisoning.”

However, there could be other consequences.  Summerbell explained that “significant risks include skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections.”

The study collected bags from shoppers for testing.  Nearly two-thirds of the bags suffered from some contamination. Roughly one-third had contamination levels higher than considered safe.

Both mold and yeast were found in roughly one-fifth of the bags.  A few even had intestinal bacteria, not something anyone would want to ingest.  The website www.nastysack.com headlined its report on the study:  “Paper, Plastic or Feces?”

The only good news was that no E. coli or Salmonella was found.  Nevertheless, warned the study:  “forms of E. coli associated with severe disease could be present in small but a significant portion of the bags if sufficient numbers were tested” and “it is consistent with everything that is known about Salmonella ecology that it would also be present on rare occasions.”

Summerbell said he wasn’t surprised by the results.  Moisture turns cloth bags into a culture for contamination. Summerbell explained:  a damp, folded cloth bag with food contamination is “an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms.”

In contrast, the study found no contamination of the plastic bags checked.

Some consumers make the problem worse by using cloth bags for other contaminated products, such as diapers and workout clothes.  And the problem doesn’t stop with the owner of the bag.

The report warned that contaminants could be transferred from bag to bag at a grocery check-out “as material from the surfaces gets onto the hands of the check-out staff.”  Moreover, airborne mold spores could harm check-out clerks.  Indeed, the study added:  “grocery store staff remarked to the investigators that they found some reusable bags remarkably soiled in appearance and were reluctant to touch them.”

The obvious solution is to wash the bags.  But there are many things that we should do—and don’t.  People often forget or procrastinate.

Moreover, warns the report:  “Reusable bags can in principle be cleaned, but drying them out thoroughly is problematical and their flimsy nature deters scrubbing that would remove organic deposits.  Any imperfect cleaning would tend to add water to completely removed food material and thus inadvertently boost microbial growth.”

We all have a stake in a cleaner environment.  And a healthier one.  Plastic bags turn out to be not only eco-friendly but also safer than reusable cloth bags. Government should leave people free to choose the bags which they believe best meet their needs.

Philadelphia’s City Council made the right decision in voting against a plastic bag ban.  Protecting the environment is important, but both plastic and paper bags have their virtues.  Government should let the rest of us decide which is best.

<i>James Broussard is the Chairman at Citizens Against Higher Taxes. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Area.</i>