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Plastic Bags Making a Comeback During Coronavirus

May 06, 2020

With grocery stores being open and busier than ever during COVID-19 lockdowns, disposable plastic bags are making a comeback as some people fear that reusable bags could spread the virus. Prior to the pandemic, a growing number of cities and municipalities banned single-use plastic bags in an effort to cut down on waste.

As the novel coronavirus has spread, people have gotten leery about coming in close contact with other people and their possessions, including reusable bags. That’s why some grocery stores and states are turning back to disposable bags: they simply aren’t handled quite as much, so there’s less uncertainty over where they’ve been. Some stores are letting customers use their own bags if they bag their groceries themselves, while others are banning them outright.

Concerns over reusable bags and their ability to carry harmful pathogens is not a new phenomenon.  There are several studies that show problems with reusable bags, like an April 2011 study by the University of Arizona.  The researchers interviewed consumers at random before they entered the store and analyzed their reusable bags.  They found that few of the shoppers cleaned the reusable bags and they were used for a multitude of purposes.

The researchers took samples of the bags and found large amounts of bacteria in most of them.  When meat products were transported in them and then the bags were stored in cars for two hours, bacterial growth increased 10-fold.

Single-use plastic bags are useful tools to transport food cleanly and safely.  With how contagious the coronavirus has proven to be, single-use plastic bags serve a valuable purpose in keeping infections down. 

For the short-term we can look at plastic bags as an unlikely hero during this pandemic. Most measures to ban reusable bags have all been announced as temporary. But how long will they will stick? Will people’s suspicions of reusable bags linger for months, or even years amid safety concerns? Will this pandemic make plastic bags popularity resurge?

If plastic bags are a symbol of the consumer response to the COVID-19 crisis, then it is quite possible that once the immediate crisis is past, reusable bags will become the symbol of recovery.