Nothing we use for ten minutes should pollute the environment for hundreds of years.
In 2019, the Oregon Legislature passed the "Sustainable Shopping Initiative," which bans the sale of single-use plastic grocery bags and requires retailers to charge at least five-cents for 40% post-consumer recycled paper and reusable bags. This law went into effect January 1, 2020.
During the early stages of the pandemic, when little was known about how COVID-19 spreads, the state recommended an eased enforcement of the bag law to allow for some flexibility for grocery stores with frontline workers who were feeling uneasy about handling reusable bags and because of a reported shortage of paper bags.
Now, over six months later, if you walk into a grocery store in Oregon, it's not clear that there are any restrictions on bags at all. In some stores, thin plastic bags are being used at checkout. In some, there's no charge for paper bags. In others, you aren't allowed to bring your reusable bag into the store at all.
We now know more about how COVID-19 spreads, and it's time for Oregon to recommit to the bag ban.
Isn't there a shortage of paper bags?
The Sustainable Shopping Initiative includes a five cent fee on paper bags so that more Oregonians choose to use reusable bags-- and so we don't simply trade one single-use bag for another. If there is, in fact, a shortage of paper bags in Oregon, grocery stores ought to find ways to encourage people to use reusable bags, give them boxes at checkout or have people simply go without a bag.
Additionally, we should not waive the fee for paper bags. Waiving the fee may confuse the public and create a false sense of safety with single-use bags. The fee should remain in place and customers should be able to bring their own bags. We do not need plastic bags.
But don't reusable bags potentially transmit COVID-19?
In June, a group of 115 doctors and scientists signed onto a statement addressing the safety of reusables during the COVID-19 pandemic. They found that if basic hygiene and safety measures are in place, reusable bags are no less safe than single-use.
Another recent study found that COVID-19 can survive on plastic for up to 72 hours, and on paper for 24 hours. Fabric and mesh were not part of the study, but we know those materials are much easier to clean and disinfect.
We are experiencing a difficult and unprecedented time, but it is important that our decisions stay grounded in science.
The bag ban was passed because plastic waste is polluting our environment and Oregonians demanded action. During this pandemic, while we spend time closer to home, we're reminded how special Oregon's environment is-- and how worthy it is of protection. The sooner we can get back to reusable bags, the better, for our oceans, our beaches, our parks and the health of our environment.
In the meantime, here are some basic tips for safely using reusable bags:
- Make sure your reusable bags are properly cleaned before each use.
- Make sure your bags are cleaned and disinfected after their use. Wash reusable fabric bags with soap and water either by hand or machine, and disinfect reusable plastic bags.
- Follow the rules at the grocery store. If they ask you to bag your own groceries, comply if you are able. If the store doesn't allow reusable bags, you can ask them to place your items back in the cart and bag them yourself at your car, bike trailer, or for your walk home.
- Use the self-checkout when possible, and bag your own groceries in your reusable bag.