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COVID-19 changing the conversation about reusable bags

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Plastic grocery bags at Fresh Market in Park City on Tuesday, May 16, 2017. A plastic bag ban goes into effect in June for Park City stores that are at least 12,000 square feet and sell groceries.

The COVID-19 virus is changing the conversation about reusable bags. Such bags now aren’t allowed in many stores, which only allowing paper bags or plastic bags like these.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

LOGAN — Plastic bags have become the target of environmental activists in recent years in an effort to combat pollution and climate change. Grocery stores then started offering reusable bags as an alternative to single-use plastic bags, as well as expanding paper bag options and charging for disposable bags.

But the outbreak of COVID-19 is changing the conversation on reusable bags as grocery stores have temporarily suspended the use of reusables because the virus has been reported to live on surfaces for several hours to several days.

Now cities that have banned plastic bags are grappling with what this means for the movement moving forward.

Three cities in Utah banned plastic bags to help with the nationwide environmental efforts: Moab, Park City and Logan. Logan banned plastic bags last year with the help of a city councilman and residents who wanted to see a change, but the Cache Valley Daily reported Logan’s ban has recently been delayed as the state confronts a global pandemic.

Logan Councilman Herm Olsen, a practicing attorney, sponsored the bill in Logan to ban the use of plastic bags, which was ultimately passed in December.

“Cache County and Logan City kind of slowed this plastic bag ban because they don’t want to add to the burden on merchants during COVID-19,” Olsen said. “I want to be sympathetic to their plight, but I think banning the bags will actually help businesses during this time.”

He pointed to the cost of plastic bags as being a detriment to businesses that are struggling financially right now, saying that a merchant told him that he spends nearly $30,000 a year providing bags for free.

Olsen also said that the evidence for the virus living on surfaces like reusable bags is lacking and often contradictory. He said a study by an infectious disease expert at Harvard showed there’s a long train of events that would need to happen for someone to become infected through contact with a contaminated surface.

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that the transmission of COVID-19 through surfaces hasn’t been documented and that “transmission of coronavirus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through objects and surfaces.”

Recycling the plastic bags isn’t really feasible in Utah, Olsen said, because recycling centers lack the infrastructure to handle recycling.

“It would be wonderful if we could functionally recycle our single use bags, but it isn’t going to happen; it hasn’t been happening,” he said. “The input I have received from the recycle facility that Cache County uses is that they hate single use bags because they literally mess up their machinery.” 

He said the bags often get jammed in the recycling machines and the center has to close down their whole facility to unclog the machinery.

Craig Buttars, chairman of Logan’s Solid Waste Advisory Board, echoed Olsen’s concerns with recycling. He said it’s difficult to get the required 40,000 pounds of plastic bags needed to ship to a recycling center near Reno, Nevada.

However, it is an option that his advisory board has looked into. As far as the plastic bag movement goes, he said he thinks there will be a “paradigm shift” in the way people view single use plastics.

“Well I think it’s going to change a lot of people’s perspectives moving forward,” Buttars said. “As a society, we are going to be much more aware of the spread of a virus.”

Park City banned single use plastic bags in 2017, a first for Utah at the time.

Luke Cartin, Park City’s sustainability manager, said it’s up to individual businesses in the city to decide whether they will allow reusable bags.

Cartin said he doesn’t think that COVID-19 will change the conversation on reusable bags.

“I am aware that several grocery stores are not currently allowing use of reusable bags to align with the Summit County public health order,” said Linda Jager, community outreach manager of Park Cityl.

The local Whole Foods said it is currently not allowing people to use reusable bags in order to follow the current recommendations in place by the Summit County Health Department and is using paper bags like it does under normal circumstances.

Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus said that to her knowledge, there aren’t any businesses in her city that aren’t allowing patrons to use reusable bags. Instead, she said the choice lies with individual businesses just like the use of masks.

She said reusable bag use has changed in the city, but that it’s likely due to the way people are shopping during the pandemic.

“First, residents are utilizing programs where businesses allow for online shopping and payment followed by curbside pickup,” Niehaus said. “This eliminates the issue of contaminated bags. Second, I think some are opting out of using their reusable bags for now and sticking with paper.”

Niehaus said she hopes that people are taking proper personal hygiene measures to protect themselves and others by washing their reusable bags, reusable masks and their hands frequently.

“I hope that this pandemic shines a light on our need to ensure better sanitation. This doesn’t mean we eliminate reusable bags; it just means we wash them (and our hands) more frequently,” she said.