Is food-borne illness a risk with plastic bag bans?

Named the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, 1.5 billion plastic bags are distributed every year in B.C., according to the Retail Council of Canada. In 2012, the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup reported picking up 69 790 plastic bags from beaches, rivers and creeks across Canada — the third most popular litter item, after cigarettes and food wrappers.

Still, some researchers argue that the alternative to plastic bags — reusable bags — while touted as being less risky for the environment, may pose risks to human health.

The use of reusable bags results in bacteria growth and “creates an opportunity for cross contamination of foods,” states Food Protection Trends magazine. In order to avoid this risk, epidemiologist Kimberly K. Repp says, “We wash our clothes when they’re dirty; we should wash our bags too.”

In October 2007, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban plastic bags in chain grocery stores and drugstores, expanding to all retail establishments in 2012. Following the 2007 ban, Jonathan Klick and Joshua Wright, professors from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and George Mason University respectively, conducted a study looking at deaths from intestinal diseases and emergency room visits for E. coli-related illness in San Francisco County. They found that deaths from food-borne illnesses in San Francisco increased by 46 per cent following the plastic bag ban. “This suggests,” write Klick and Wright, “that the plastic bag ban generated serious public health problems.” Klick and Wright warn that if people do not wash their reusable grocery bags, then the bags will harbour harmful bacteria.

In response to Klick and Wright’s research paper, Tomás J. Aragón, health officer at San Francisco’s Department of Public Health, released a memo on Feb. 8, 2013, stating that Klick and Wright’s conclusion “is not warranted.”

“The basic study flaw is that persons that use reusable bags frequently may not be the same persons that were diagnosed with gastrointestinal infections in their study,” writes Aragón. Aragón says Klick and Wright did not account for other possible causes of bacterial infections, such as contaminated water and improper food handling or preparation.

“The idea that widespread use of reusable bags may cause gastrointestinal infections if they are not regularly cleaned is plausible,” writes Aragón. However, he warns the hypothesis has not been tested.

In 2012, the city of Toronto voted to ban plastic bags. A CBC report states, “Torontonians are estimated to use 215 million plastic bags each year, which amounts to some 1 400 tonnes of plastic.” On June 6, 2012, Toronto City Councillor David Shiner proposed the ban, which was approved by City Council and was to take effect on Jan. 1, 2013. The bylaw, however, was later rejected after facing legal challenges from the Ontario Convenience Stores Association and the Canadian Plastic Bag Association.

B.C. cities do not have the authority to implement municipal plastic bag bans. This kind of law would be under provincial jurisdiction.

While there is no law in place regarding plastic bag use, the Capital Regional District (CRD) has created an online plastic bag refusal pledge, a non-binding personal pledge against the use of plastic bags that residents of the CRD can take.

If B.C. municipalities were allowed more control over plastic bag policies in the future, UVic Environmental Studies professor James Rowe thinks a plastic bag ban would be successful in Victoria, “since many grocers already strongly encourage the use of reusable bags.” However, “The problem with a ban is that it will temporarily inconvenience some stores and many consumers,” says Rowe. “People don’t like having their behaviour restricted, especially when they are used to particular kinds of conduct.” In order to get stores and consumers on board, Rowe says incentives and social marketing programs are needed to get people excited about the transition.

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