What’s the deal with reusable grocery bags and COVID risk?

By Karina Maher, MD and Ingrid Steinberg  DECEMBER 4, 2020

Scroll to the bottom of this article for specific bag policies at our local grocery stores. 

 

For the past few years, it has been increasingly the norm for shoppers to bring reusable bags when they grocery shop, aided by the city and statewide bans or restrictions on single-use plastic bags. Single use plastic bags are a fossil fuel product that cause untold damage to wildlife as they end up in our oceans, waterways, and landfills. They are not recyclable. When they break down, plastic bags turn into microplastics which harm human and animal health. This harm can be easily avoided by using reusable bags.  

 

Unfortunately, the COVID crisis led Governor Newsom to temporarily suspend the statewide plastic bag ban, bringing the widespread adoption of reusable bags to an abrupt halt. As people grew concerned for their safety, there was an unfounded worry that store employees would be exposed to the virus by handling the bags or that customers would increase exposure at the store by using their bags. However, as we have learned more about the virus, it has become clear that allowing customers to bring their reusable bags does not present any significant risk to store employees. So in June, Governor Newsom did not renew the temporary suspension of reusable bags when it expired. 

 

However, even as the plastic bag ban was reinstated, stores were still able to provide paper bags or to sell thicker plastic bags which are marked as “reusable”. These plastic bags are likely to end up polluting our environment and our bodies no differently than the regular ones. Meanwhile, the plastics industry is capitalizing on COVID fears, and will do all it can to reverse their prior losses. 

 

Gradually, grocery stores have started allowing customers to bring their own reusable bags, but some do not allow their staff to touch or pack the bags. This is based on erroneous fears that the customers’ reusable bags present a risk different from other items the public comes in contact with such as the items on the store shelves. In reality, Coronavirus-19 has been shown to remain viable on hard surfaces such as metal and plastic much longer than on porous surfaces such as cloth bags. 

 

Due to stores’ changing policies, and consumers’ understandable anxiety about COVID spread, there has been great uncertainty among customers about what is allowed and what is safe and, as a result, very few customers are now using their own bags. The fact is that customers using their own reusable bags and store staff packing them poses no increased risk of COVID exposure to shoppers or store staff as compared to touching the items that go into the bags.

 

At a minimum, those of us who care about the environment, our own health, and the health of our loved ones can set an example by refusing single use paper bags or thicker plastic bags at the supermarket. Remember, even if packing your own reusable bag in the store doesn’t work for you, it’s easy to restock your cart with your unbagged purchases and pack your bags once you get outside or to your car.

 

We interviewed managers at our four local grocery stores to confirm their policies:

 

Gelson’s started allowing reusable bags in October, and they now have the most expansive reusable bag policy of all the Palisades stores:

  • Reusable bags are welcome
  • Cashiers will pack those bags
  • Reusable produce bags are permitted

 

Erewhon

  • Reusable bags are welcome
  • Cashiers may choose whether or not they feel comfortable bagging the items
  • If customers do not bring reusable bags, only paper is offered, not plastic
  • Reusable produce bags are permitted

 

Vons and Ralphs

  • Reusable bags are welcome
  • Customers must pack their own bags
  • Reusable produce bags are not allowed

 

By returning to the norm of avoiding single-use bags, we will not only reduce our own plastics and carbon footprint while protecting wildlife; we will also set an example for other shoppers who may choose to follow our lead. 

 

[Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash]

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