PITTSFIELD — Before the global coronavirus pandemic, the most I thought my life would change this year was adapting to Pittsfield's new plastic bag ban. Courtesy of Gov. Charlie Baker, we now find ourselves amidst a ban on that ban, as the state government has stepped in to suspend all local plastic bag bans, and has imposed its own ban on reusable bags because of their perceived ability to spread the coronavirus.
It's important to note that the only scientific evidence supporting the reusable bag ban is anecdotal at best, and this measure was passed with an abundance of caution in mind. Baker is also not alone, as states like New Hampshire, Maine and Illinois have passed similar measures to protect grocery store workers and consumers.
Past studies about the capabilities of reusable bags to spread pathogens have concluded that it comes down to a number of factors, including what food those bags were carrying (a bag with chicken, for example, would carry different bacteria than a bag of greens), and most importantly the bag washing habits of bag owners. A 10-year American Chemistry Council-funded University of Arizona investigation cited by MarketWatch found that 99.9 percent of all bacteria were destroyed in reusable bags that were washed regularly, and it stands to reason that the coronavirus would also be washed away with them as it is no match for plain, old soap. As MarketWatch puts it: "Soap dissolves the fat membrane, and the virus falls apart like a house of cards."
The key factor, of course, is if people bother to regularly wash their bags, in which case, single-use plastic bags have the upper hand as they are in circulation less. But consumers should still be cautious about plastic bags, as a study published by The New England Journal of Medicine found that it can be active on plastic for about three days. The study did not test the virus's lifespan on cloth, so it is possible that regularly-washed reusable bags are safer to use than disposable bags, but it's still too early to tell.
Regardless, this crisis gives residents a moment to reassess their local plastic bag bans, and to decide what normal should be when a return to normal life is in reach.
No one likes to see plastic bags clog our rivers, litter our streets, or snare our forestlife. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, it takes 500 or more years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill, after which they degrade into microplastics. Of all the options you have for bags, plastic has the longest and nastiest postmortem journey.
But there are factors outside of litter to consider when implementing plastic bag bans, particularly the carbon footprint producing plastic alternatives like paper or cloth have, as well as the different waste they produce.
According to the BBC, it takes four times as much energy to produce a paper bag than a plastic bag, their production creates a higher concentration of toxic chemicals than single-use plastic bags, and they also contribute to deforestation, though they do cut down on overall nonbiodegradable waste entering the environment.
However, cotton tote bags can be far worse, as a 2011 U.K. study found that you have to reuse a cotton tote bag 131 times before it's better for climate change than a plastic bag and a 2018 Danish study found that you'd have to reuse an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times for it to have the same cumulative environmental impact as plastic on the environment (it's important to note that this study compares environmental impacts from production only; litter is not accounted for). Though, not all is lost for cloth, as woven polypropylene bags only need to be used 45 times for it to have same cumulative environmental impact as plastic bags — a perfectly obtainable goal for those that take care of their reusable bags. So when buying cloth bags, what type of bag you have can make all the difference.
Across the nation, plastic bag bans have functioned like a seesaw, as while they have reduced litter in their communities, they have increased reliance on paper and cloth, which have their own problems. Perhaps the worst possible outcome of a single-use plastic bag ban is when it leads to an increase in usage of thicker plastic bags that fall outside of the definition of single-use which actually increases plastic waste. Such was the case in Chicago, which removed its plastic bag ban in 2016 after it backfired, and replaced it with a 7-cent fee on paper and plastic bags that has yielded promising results.
Any ambitious, sweeping piece of legislation often comes with unintended consequences that the public should be aware of, especially when it comes to the environment. This is not to discourage bold action against plastic bags, but it is important to recognize that nothing operates in a bubble and there are rarely simple panaceas to the complex environmental problems we face.
Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle page designer/copy editor and freelance writer.