California Lifts Reusable Bag Ban Restrictions

San Francisco is lifting local prohibitions too as authorities say growing evidence suggests the bags aren’t conveyors of the coronavirus.

The reusable bag could soon be back in business.

In moves welcomed by purveyors of branded reusable bags in the promotional products industry, California this week reinstated a ban on single-use plastic bags and San Francisco said on Friday, June 26 that it was within days of lifting a temporary ban on reusable bags in grocery stores.

“This is good news on many fronts for us as a company and our industry,” said Andy Keller, founder and CEO of California-based ChicoBag Company (asi/44811).

Amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, prohibitions on reusable bags like grocery totes have proliferated in California and other states throughout the U.S. as authorities reacted to what some said was evidence that the bags could spread COVID-19. Those restrictions have dented sales of reusable bags in the promo industry.

Critics of the clampdown on reusable bags, however, have asserted that the purported evidence linking the products to disease spread is derived largely from studies commissioned by pro plastic industry groups that are eager to counteract what had been a growing trend of bans on single-use plastic bags.

Reusable Tote

Still, there now appears to be a mounting body of science that calls such claims into question. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), touching a surface that may have the virus on it is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. Potential exposure to COVID-19 from handling reusable grocery bags is considered low, but consumers should wash the bags after each use, authorities say.

“The plastic industry has for years tried to advance the notion that reusable bags are a vector for sickness, but it’s not backed up by science,” said Keller.

Meanwhile, Consumer Reports issued a rebuke to one study that painted reusable bags as carriers of dangerous bacteria. The study, which was sponsored by a plastics industry group, analyzed just 84 bags and only found bacteria that doesn’t usually cause disease. “A person eating an average bag of salad greens gets more exposure to these bacteria than if they had licked the insides of the dirtiest bag from this study,” Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at Consumers Union, told Consumer Reports. “These bacteria can be found lots of places, so no need to go overboard.”

Andy Keller
Andy Keller, ChicoBag Company.

Hansen noted that it’s easy to spread bacteria from meat, fish or poultry to other foods, so it’s smart to carry such items in disposable bags. “Reusable bags are fine for most everything else, but it’s a good idea to wash them,” Consumer Reports says.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to allow reusable bags again was based significantly on findings from the CDC that indicated that, although the virus can live on surfaces, there are no documented cases in which it has been transmitted to a person from a surface.

San Francisco was the first major U.S. city to ban plastic bags, having done so in 2007. The city-specific ordinance was suspended during the early days of the pandemic, but that’s soon to reverse. Authorities in San Francisco said that “changing” science around how the virus is spread is driving the impetus to again allow reusable bags.

“Early on in this, when science was changing, we didn’t know the virus as well as we do today,” Charles Sheehan, a spokesman for San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, told the Chronicle.

More cities and states in the U.S., as well as governments internationally, have sought to ban single-use plastic bags in recent years. The motivation is to better protect the environment. Disposable plastic bags create litter, pollute habitats and threaten wildlife, especially marine life when they enter the ocean and other waterways, plastic bag ban advocates say.

It remains to be seen if California’s renewed embrace of reusable bags will influence other states and municipalities to take similar action. Regardless, from a public relations perspective, the reusable bag might have to contend with negative perception for a time after bans on them are lifted, given the widespread media coverage of the products as potential disease bearers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s a constant battle against misinformation,” said Keller. “It can get frustrating.”

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