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Saturday, April 16, 2011

Are reusable bags safe?

Doug MacEachern of the Republic had an interesting Quick Hit the other day in the paper where he mentioned that plastic grocery sacks may not be causing as much harm to the environment as the cotton and canvas reusable bags that are so popular now. He mentioned a British government study which shows that plastic may cause up to 170 times less harm and the number is higher if you wash the reusable bags.
Reusable bag from Trader Joe's.
That’s interesting information so I checked it out further. I found a column by Jonah Goldberg in a USA Today from April 4th where he states that a new study by the Environmental Agency of England says that plastic bags have a smaller carbon footprint than the reusable plastic or cotton “satchels” as well as paper disposable bags. It goes on to say that you'd have to reuse a cotton bag at least 131 times to equal the low carbon footprint of a simple plastic bag. If you reuse a plastic bag — as a wastebasket liner perhaps — they pull even further away as the greenest technology.

Goldberg also notes that “as other studies have shown, those trendy reusable bags provide a wonderful breeding ground for E coli and other bacteria. That is, unless you wash them regularly. But if you do that, as my American Enterprise Institute colleague Ken Green notes, all that bleach, soap and hot water expand their carbon footprint as well.”

More evidence of reusable bags being a source for disease also comes from the U of A: “Studies completed by University of Arizona professor Charles Gerba found that 97% of consumers using reusable grocery bags never wash or clean them. When paired with his findings on the bacteria count of the average grocery cart, neglecting to properly and routinely wash these bags opens your family up to a host of nasties including E. coli, coliforms, salmonella and a range of other bacteria and mold. According to Professor Gerba, reusing your shopping bags again and again without washing them is akin to “wearing the same underwear everyday”.

In 1979-1980 I was a distributor for Mobile Chemical in Kansas City and our most important new product then was the plastic grocery sack which we were selling in an effort to replace the large paper “barrel” sack of that time. From a cost standpoint, it was an easy sell. From a technological view it was more difficult. The checkers and sackers hated them because they were “different” and it wasn’t uncommon for me to install a store in the morning and have the bags discontinued by evening.

Eventually all my accounts came aboard and the rest is history as one can tell from any supermarket you enter. In recent years, plastic bags have had their share of criticism but with the evidence coming in about reusable bags, maybe they aren’t so bad after all. Regardless, they were fun to sell and have saved the grocery industry millions in supply costs.

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