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.


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