American Elephants

Plastic Grocery Bags and Food Borne Illness: by The Elephant's Child
January 19, 2013, 6:15 pm
Filed under: Politics | Tags: , ,

A fad running through city governments has been to ban or impose taxes upon plastic grocery bags. Big pressure from the Greens for reusable cloth bags. This will save us from our addiction to foreign oil and from the need to steal Iraq’s oil or something like that. Who knows what strange mysteries lurk in the minds of the greenest of the greens. This is a long story of green misunderstandings, misguided zealotry, and overblown nannyism.

Here’s an excerpt from a post from April, 2009:

The whole thing began with a misreading of a 1987 Canadian study in Newfoundland, which found that between 1981 and 1984 more than 100,000 marine mammals were killed every year by discarded fishing nets.  The Canadian study did not mention plastic bags. In 2002, a report prepared for the Australian Government by Nolan-ITU said that the Newfoundland study attributed the deaths to “plastic bags.” But according to the Australian Government’s Environment Department website, the report was amended in 2006.

Scientists and environmentalists have questioned the case against the use of plastic shopping bags as based on flawed science and misreporting.  That hasn’t stopped governments everywhere from trying to phase out the plastic bags.  The actual report, later amended, has been widely quoted by environmentalists.  It actually attributed the deaths to all plastic debris, including fishing nets and equipment, and undoubtedly the plastic holders for six-packs.

Regulations really should be required to be accompanied by a cost-benefit analysis. I did my own when my grocery store began to hawk cloth bags, pretty basic ones, at $3.00 each.  I try to shop less often than once a week, and I’m aiming for two weeks. I don’t like shopping, so I probably average at least 20 plastic bags or more. $60 worth of cloth bags? Fat chance. There is also a significant risk of food-borne illness. Food poisoning can be serious, like dead.

The dark, moist, warm interior of a folded, used, reusable bag is an ideal incubator for yeast, mold, and coliforms. Successive trips to the grocery, leaking meat wrappings,  water from moist produce, cracked eggs, or leaking dairy containers, with transfers of microbes from various hands. A Canadian study found that 64% of reusable cloth bags were contaminated, and 30% had higher counts of bacteria than what is considered safe for drinking water.

This is, of course the Seattle area, and that city,(really, really green) has banned plastic bags and put a 5¢ tax on paper bags that applies to all grocery, retail and convenience stores as of July 2012.  I don’t shop in Seattle so I don’t know how it has gone. You should wash cloth bags in soap and water and bleach after every use, to be safe.

Now comes a new study in the Social Science Research Network titled:

Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness

Recently, many jurisdictions have implemented bans or imposed taxes upon plastic grocery bags on environmental grounds. San Francisco County was the first major US jurisdiction to enact such a regulation, implementing a ban in 2007. There is evidence, however, that reusable grocery bags, a common substitute for plastic bags, contain potentially harmful bacteria. We examine emergency room admissions related to these bacteria in the wake of the San Francisco ban. We find that ER visits spiked when the ban went into effect. Relative to other counties, ER admissions increase by at least one-fourth, and deaths exhibit a similar increase.

Klick, Jonathan and Wright, Joshua D., Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness (November 2, 2012). Available at SSRN: or

The study can be downloaded at the link above. You might want to pass it on to your city council, if they have banned the bags. If they understand that their misguided ruling can be killing people, they may be interested. Nothing like wrongful death lawsuits to stir action.


8 Comments so far
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I’ve been using canvas bags to do my shopping for 25 years, at least. Of course I don’t put dripping meat in it, and every once in awhile I wash it. Never gotten sick from using them. And the bags have never broken (unlike plastic ones), spilling out contents.

You really don’t have to look hard to find examples of plastic bags killing marine turtles and mammals. For example:

That is not to say that I’m in favor of banning plastic bags. I would rather people use alternatives voluntarily. But I should think that any conservative would be against waste — the kind of waste I see at Walmarts, for example, where they typically use four bags where two would have sufficed.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

If you read the linked pieces, you would have seen where the ban originated. Most people reuse their plastic bags (kitty litter, dog poop, dead birds etc.) and send the remainder to be recycled. You don’t normally take plastic bags to the beach. It is, apparently, a significant health risk, easily avoided.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

What’s your point? That their contribution to the overall problem of plastic in the marine environment has been exaggerated? OK, I won’t contest that. But exaggerated is not the same as saying that they never cause any problem. Do you think the marine biologists in the article to which I provide a link were wrong, or lying?

As I said, I’m not in favor of banning plastic bags. They have their uses. But I think it is also naive to pretend that they all get recycled, re-used and properly disposed of. Some get loose into the environment — e.g., because they blow out of trash bins or out of garbage trucks, or at the land-fill. Or people just pull out the stuff they want and throw the bag down as litter. And the ultimate fate of almost all things plastic that are not burned or deeply buried is to move downhill, which means through water courses to the ocean. (And I have seen plenty of people carry things in plastic bags to the beach.)

So now you are condemning canvas bags because some people don’t know how to use them properly? Should we condemn plastic cutting boards because some people don’t clean them adequately after cutting up pork?


Comment by Subsidy Eye

I believe the point of my post was to warn that there is a serious risk of food poisoning. I am not condemning cloth bags, but warning that they should be washed with bleach between uses. I personally don’t want to be forced to pay for cloth bags that may be dangerous. And city councils need to spend more time fixing potholes and streamlining regulation, and was less time trying to manage the people.


Comment by The Elephant's Child

“a serious risk of food poisoning”?

Only if the user doesn’t know the first thing about hygiene.

“I am not condemning cloth bags, but warning that they should be washed with bleach between uses.”

It depends how one handles them, now doesn’t it? How many people do you know put dripping meat in a cloth bag? Most of my bags get filled with packaged goods, bottles, and the like. Washing and bleaching them after such use would be over-kill, to say the least. If the meat looks as if it might drip I put it in a plastic bag before putting it in the canvas bag. And for fruits and vegetables I re-use the small plastic bags used for weighing and rinse the produce before eating.

I don’t use cheap canvas bags sold by grocery stores, which typically fall apart after a few uses, but sturdy ones sold by companies like L.L. Bean. They last for decades, and they are much easier to carry into the house than dozens of plastic bags full of groceries.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

And, by the way, regarding your sidebar quote — “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence — it is force!”, which you attribute to Washington — according to Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations:

This [quote] is undoubtedly apocryphal, like many other quotations attributed to Lincoln or Washington. No one has ever found any evidence that Washington said it. In the next edition of the Yale Book of Quotations, barring any further discoveries, I will list it as a pseudo-Washingtonism, with the earliest known citation being [in 1902].

Of course, being apocryphal does not mean it’s still not an astute observation, whoever said it.


Comment by Subsidy Eye

[…] fertilizer for plants. Trees grow and die and decay and release carbon dioxide. We have posted a video from Matt Ridley explaining the “greening of the planet” and the blessings that brings, like feeding […]


Pingback by It’s Earth Day. Yawn. Zzzzzz-zzz… | American Elephants

[…] Bag banning is a liberal “environmental” fad that has been running through municipal and state governments since 2007. when the first ban was enacted in San Francisco County. It is a long sad story of environmental zealots who are passionate about foreign oil or fossil fuels and saving the planet — one regulation at a time. Here’s an excerpt from a 2009 post: […]


Pingback by California Enacts a Stupid Statewide Plastic Bag Ban. | American Elephants

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