Despite Backlash, Reusable Grocery Bags Are Still The Smart (And Frugal) Move

Despite Backlash, Reusable Grocery Bags Are Still The Smart (And Frugal) Move

I’d heard arguments against reusable bags before, but despite having been around for years, I hadn’t heard the “reusable bags jeopardize public health” argument until very recently. Now that I’ve looked into it, it’s not very compelling.

Whether it’s a dolphin-rescuing triumph, or a mistake spearheaded by wrongheaded liberals, plastic grocery bags are going the way of the dinosaurs they’re made of. Yes, extinction is still a ways off, but over sixty jurisdictions in the US have bans on the books, and more are in the works.

With each new jurisdiction to ban the bags comes a new fee structure. You now have to cough up as much as 25 cents each time you forget your bag. That can add up in the long run, especially for large families.

Obviously it’s not just a matter of personal finance. 80 million tons of the petroleum product polyethylene are manufactured every year, and its primary use is in the manufacture of disposable bags. They may or may not whiz away to the sea immediately after use, and maliciously jam themselves into the blowholes of orcas, but they do sit in landfills for perhaps a thousand years, by some estimates, or perhaps forever by others. For whatever reason, some find the environmental arguments against disposable bags unconvincing.

Arguments that plastic bags are more “green” than reusable bags are flimsy at best, and seem to stem entirely from lobbyists for plastic bag manufacturers. The stories are circulated by fans of counterintuitive-and-therefore-true journalism. Even the smuggest of greens should be able to get through the following bullet points unscathed:

  • More raw materials go into a reusable bag. If thrown away early, it generates more landfill waste by weight than a disposable plastic bag. So don’t throw it away early.
  • Generating the synthetic materials needed to manufacture a reusable bag generates more CO2 than a disposable bag, but that’s hopefully offset by the fact that fewer have to be produced.
  • Most often petrochemical companies that make plastic out of petroleum byproducts are US-based, while textile manufacturers are usually overseas, meaning shipping and labor outsourcing. Nonetheless, the United States has tote bag manufacturers, and more will materialize if the market demands it.

Reusable bags signal a shift away from the creation of unnecessary waste with every transaction. The new model favors reuse. Current methods may not be perfect, and are symbolic in a sense. You’ve heard this spiel before, right?

However, when publicized its support for the ban in Los Angeles, there was a small but noticeable voice of social media dissent, and it brought with it a relatively new argument about bacteria. Followers of @savings didn’t have quite the vehemence of the following Twitter account, but it provides of sample of some of the stronger grocery bag backlash:

Deadly bacteria? Seriously?

This tweet is probably referring to a recent paper published in the Journal of University of Pennsylvania Law School, written by Jonathan Klick of UPenn and Joshua D. Wright of George Mason. In the paper, called “Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness,” the authors detail a study of E. Coli infections in San Francisco after their plastic bag ban went into effect in 2007. Infections trend sharply upward. Very sharply upward. The most eye-popping figure they throw at readers is that there’s been a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illness.

While I, an avowed non-scientist, would prefer to wait on the sidelines and see if anyone ever refutes these numbers, some aspects seem a little shaky, even to a layman:

  • Their sample size doesn’t strike me as particularly large, with the increase in total deaths being an average of about five per year. Not five percent, but five deaths.
  • The paper makes no positive forensic connection at all between the bags and the E. Coli infections. While there is some science to back up the idea of deadly bacteria in your grocery bags, some of the more dramatic studies were funded, again, by the very companies that manufacture disposable bags.
  • Section 5 of their paper is called “I Like Turtles.” That doesn’t diminish their argument. I’m just throwing a little shade.
  • E. Coli, it should be pointed out, may be living in your grocery bags, as the study says, but they’re also living in your stomach right now. They’re mostly harmless. It’s only the rare “Shiga toxin-producing” E. coli (STEC) that will hurt you.

Most of the goods we buy at supermarkets are shelf stable, but it stands to reason that if you carry raw meat in your grocery bag, it might leak. It’s also worth noting that after a few uses, your grocery bag is unwashed laundry, and you wouldn’t tote your broccoli around in a t-shirt you just pulled out of the hamper.

As for me, in all the years I’ve used reusable bags, I have to admit, I’ve only ever washed them twice, and it was because products had noticeably leaked into them. It turns out that if we want to follow instructions to the letter we should be laundering them after each use.

Click the following image to see a larger .pdf of The Cleaning Institute’s guide to keeping your reusable bags clean:


Knowing issues of environmentalism are complicated, and that a step like using reusable bags doesn’t instantly save the planet should be simple common sense. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them. Similarly, knowing you need to run your bags through the laundry on a regular basis should be common sense too. For whatever reason, I lacked that common sense, but I’m clued in now, and I hope you are too.


Mike Pearl is a news contributor for VICE, Grist, Deathandtaxesmag and others. He takes public transportation and the vegetarian option when possible.

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