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Plastic Bag Bans Lead to E-coli Deaths

One green pet cause du jour is the banning or taxing of disposable plastic bags at supermarkets and other grocery stores. These measures, which are designed to encourage shoppers to use their own reusable tote bags, have been spreading widely in recent years, and have already gone into effect in cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

This may make the world marginally safer for plants and animals, but a new study by the Property and Environment Research Center (h/t Sullivan) shows there may be a significant downside for human health. Researchers examined these reusable totes and found significant amounts of dangerous bacteria, including, among others, E-coli. And there seems to be a correlation between plastic bag bans and increased illness, as bacteria-related deaths spiked immediately after San Francisco’s bag measure began. The International Association for Food Protection reports:

Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews, it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 8% of the bags, as well as a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased 10-fold, indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags.

This green unicorn looks considerably less enchanting upon closer examination.

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  • Luke Lea

    Is there a cogent argument against plastic bags?

  • James Ulvog

    There’s another unintended consequence. Since my family switched to reusable grocery bags, we have been purchasing plastic bags for the kitchen trash can. Instead of using the bags from the store, we use bags that are larger and thicker. We’ve increased our use of plastic.

  • Mr Three Names

    Green unicorn? Walter Russell Mead, reusable bags are also cleanable. The solution is to clean your bags not end a beneficial idea. Is this your only agreement against reusable bags?

    The “study” by PERC is truly unscientific, It is jumping to a conclusion that these bags are causing bacterial related deaths from one city, San Francisco. How about other reasons for such deaths? How about higher rates of immune deficiency in San Francisco? It could be anything. When you jump to conclusions as PERK does it can be anything you want that causes deaths.

    The two organisations you mention are a conservative think tank and a food industry organized group. Unbiased they are not, regardless their work doesn’t stand as scientific proof.

    Sloppy research and sloppier work by you reaching hard to confirm your own uninformed bias.

  • Corlyss

    Washington, D.C., San Francisco on the Potomac.

    I s’pose it would be bad form to note that ecoli and other bacterial infestations lining those silly reusables would . . . come se dice . . . exploit a target-rich population of whiny, Gaia-loving, save-the-whales, mommy-staters, thereby restoring the ecological balance with sensible, thoughtful adults.

  • Kris

    Luke@1: “Is there a cogent argument against plastic bags?”

    They make Mother Gaia cry.

    You’re welcome.

  • Eurydice

    I don’t think this has anything to do with unintended consequences of the green movement. It has to do with people’s general lack of awareness when it comes to hygiene – and if they really thought about what’s lurking on their smart phones and keyboards and handbags and shopping carts, etc., etc., they might go a little nuts. A run through the washer or a little bit of Lysol will take care of that grocery bag problem.

  • Eurydice

    Prof. Mead – Perhaps the mice are playing while you’re away in India, but posts like this lower the quality of your blog. Sensational headlines and content plucked from another’s blog – I know there’s pressure to increase traffic and to post new things every day, but please don’t turn into the Daily Beast.

  • Gene

    In Washington DC the solution the gov’t came up with is to charge 5 cents for every plastic bag. To anyone who thinks the DC city government came up with that solution “to encourage use of reusable bags” rather than to tap a new source of revenue, please contact me privately, as I have a great bridge and several stretches of highway for sale.

  • Bruce

    Yes, you could wash your reusable bags. But plastic bags are minuscule in size and weight.

    You would use more energy and water to PROPERLY wash and DISINFECT a reusable bag than was used in making a bag made out of a very small amount of plastic. Not to mention all the soap and bleach necessary to guarantee food-safe cleanliness.

  • mbabbitt

    Also: more cleaning, more water resources used. If you can get people to wash their reusables, you might as well get them to reuse their plastics which have been used to make great items from benches to fences

  • musterion

    Ummm, maybe you should wash your grocery bags before you go or after you come back from shopping every week. Of course that counters the “greenness” of them as you have to use resources like hot water and soap to keep them clean.

  • Mr Big

    When grocery stores had people go in and buy things and then put items in the bags, the direction of products was outgoing only. The only contamination was from the original source or from customers touching items on the shelfs with their hands.

    Now with re-useable bags we have a bi-direction contamination. I see people constantly put their dirty bags onto the food conveyor belt and into the food bagging receptacle area. These are the same unwashed bags they previously put meat into and let their pets lay on in the trunk of their car. This can’t be healthy.

    This is the same rotating food conveyor belt we put all our food items on; including open foods like veggies. This is just begging for cross contamination.

    At least with the old system, the checkout conveyor belts could only get contaminated from items from within the store. Now those food checkout belts are just covered in organisms brought in from the outside world bags. Be it ecoli, or animal feet/hair including fecal matter from pets. Rotating and rotating again and again on that belt for the next victim to put their food items down upon.

    If they want to have reuable bags, they should have a receptacle where old bags are dropped off upon entry to the store and newer bags can be picked up in exchange where each bag is washed before by the store. Of course, that would be costly an inefficient but much more sanitary. I can’t imagine doing a laundry load of bags by individuals is any more energy efficient and better for the environment than grabbing a plastic bag anyway.

  • ertdfg

    So “Mr Three Names” We’ll just wash them with detergent every use.

    Ok, so instead of a tiny amount of biodegradable plastic (the bags) we’ll waste a gallon of water and add more detergent into the water supply for every shopping trip.

    That’ll be good for the environment. Thankfully everywhere in the US has unlimited clean water and no issues with pollution of water or excess detergent in waste water or your idea might not be useful.

    Oh, and too bad that landfills are full and there’s no possible room for a tiny plastic bag… right?

    Whoops, none of that was true? Well who cares about truth, or reality, or the environment, we’ve got to control people and if we make things worse instead of better; that’ still progress.

    Or idiocy, I often can’t tell the two apart when the environmentalists get rolling.

    If you want ME to take you seriously, the first thing you need to do is look like YOU take you seriously. Ignoring the waste you’re proposing for a policy that will hurt instead of help? Not the actions of a serious person.

  • Mkelley

    If it’s any consolation, this nuttiness will pale in comparison to the damage the left’s “energy policies” will do to us. We are abandoning tried-and-true, cheap energy sources like coal for politically-correct, intermittent sources like wind and solar. Little old ladies will be freezing in the dark when these pukes are done.

  • Frank Dunn

    When a greenie returns an item placed in her unhygenic bag, are unaware consumers now at risk of E-coli bacteria? What is the merchant’s responsibility in sterlizing this possibly contaminated package?

    Will there have to be a special table next to the “Day Old” one for food returned in one of these faux virtuous bags?

    To the respondents who suggest washing the bag, please note that 35% to 45% of people using rest rooms don’t bother to wash their hands.

  • Hal

    The best argument against the plastic bags that I’ve seen is that a lot of them end up as slow-to-decompose litter, especially in local waterways. I’m kind of mystified by how that happens – all my bags end up in landfills at some point – but I do see a bunch of plastic bags in lots, blown into chain link fences, and along the edge of waterways.

  • Mike C

    Escherischia coli are part of Earth’s biota, and human deaths from infection are all simply part of Gaia’s grand circle of life.

    How selfish of us to mourn human deaths when we should instead be celebrating the lives of the bacteria, who now are able to flourish in their new environmentally-sound homes.


  • Blue Hen

    The “study” by PERC is truly unscientific, It is jumping to a conclusion

    Ah, a denier. We know what those people are like. Rev Al Gore taught us better. The science, like the cereal in the box, has settled.

  • R.C.

    The issue is (as usual) one of differentiating between consumer choice (and informedness) and compulsion.

    If you BAN the plastic bags, then everyone must use the cloth ones. And that will include the folks who (a.) never wash them and aren’t ever going to wash them frequently no matter how you scold them about it, and (b.) who otherwise would have used the old grocery bags in trash cans and whatnot, and whose use of purchased plastic products increases when plastic grocery bags are unavailable.

    But if you simply OFFER both options, along with informing consumers that “if you’re going to regularly wash the reusable bags, they’re fine, but if you aren’t, the plastics are safer” then you’ll have the best of all possible worlds:

    – Consumers who’re willing to wash their reusable bags regularly will use and wash them;

    – Consumers who aren’t, won’t; and,

    – Gaia-worshippers who don’t wash their bags but refuse to use the plastics as a mindless act of devotion to their surrogate deity will have a marginally higher likelihood of dying of E.coli, thereby putting a little chlorine in the gene pool.

    See? It’s all good.

  • TeeJaw

    Plastic bags replaced paper ones, and I don’t see why they are any worse. The paper ones might have been re-used for other things but were eventually thrown away. The plastic bags are reusable as well.

    There is one cogent argument, not against the bags themselves, but how they are disposed of. If thrown into the water around a marina or in the ocean they can clog the intake of sea water to cool the radiator of a marine diesel engine, causing it to overheat. If this happens to you at sea you may end up dead in the water. All that is required to prevent this is for sailors to be careful how they dispose of these bags, and I happy to say that most of them do take care.

  • Lee

    Montgomery County, Maryland started to tax plastic bags. I live in Howard County, but the stores in Montgomery County are just as, if not closer, than the Howard County stores. Since the plastic bag tax introduction, I go out of my way not to shop in Montgomery County anymore.

    Over the years I’ve lived near petroleum refineries (Marcus Hook, PA) and paper mills (St. Marys, GA & Jacksonville, FL). While obviously I rather live near to neither, given the choice of the two I’d pick a refinery without hesitation.

  • BooMushroom

    Seriously, someone needs to see how many reusable bags can be washed in a standard load of laundry, and how much energy it takes to heat the water, manufacture the detergent, ship detergent to the store, pump the water, and run the dryer(since most HOA’s prohibit outdoor line drying).

    But it won’t matter, anyway, because you don’t **SEE** all that. But you DO see plastic bags floating around. I never understand why, though. All my plastic bags get reused once before they are recycled, or trashed, depending on the re-use.

  • DCThunder

    I live in Montgomery County, MD, where a $.05 fee went into effect for ALL bags from retail stores on January 1. That means not just the grocery store, but a hardware store, a clothing store, and even the farmers market. If I want to buy 4 tomatoes at the farmers market, unless I have my own bag, I’m charged 5 cents. If I want to buy a shirt at Macy’s, I need to bring my own bag or pay the tax.

    What has happened is that in the first six months the revenue to the County from this fee has exceeded the annual expected amount. This has delighted the Democrat County Council who are gleefully thinking up new nuisance taxes of this sort to feed the public employee unions.

    This is sort of like the airlines charging for all the little things that used to be included in the cost of your ticket.

  • Tesh

    @3 Mr. Three Names,

    Washing the bags takes water, energy and detergents. I don’t remember it being sourced well, but I’ve read guesstimates that suggest that the repeated washing of those reusable bags winds up pretty much canceling out the “savings” (both to the consumer and to Gaia) of using them in the first place.

  • Old School Conservative

    The stupidity of the “green” movement grows with every new mandate.

    Study after study shows that plastic bags biodegrade in landfills at a rate comparable to paper bags,and that the overall space taken up in said landfills is miniscule compared to the total.

    Recycling paper bags is a viable alternative and the bags are automatically sterilized in the recycling process.

    None of this matters, of course, to the watermelon greenies. Plastic bags are made from oil, oil evil, or so they believe in their deluded communistic little minds.

  • Guessed

    Since MD put its 5 cent fee on the bags I have not paid one nickel for plastic bags, and I don’t think I have used reusable bags more than once in many months. If I can’t carry it in two hands, I don’t buy it. Of course, that means more trips and more energy expended in making more trips…

  • Don51

    Disposable needles, yes.
    Disposable bags, no.

    Explain the rationale again? Let the discordance ensue.

  • Sam L.

    The obvious solution for washing reusable bag is to use them as washcloths when one bathes/showers. C’mon, it’s easy!

  • rhhardin

    I’ve used “reusable” bags for years without sickness, albeit not for environmental reasons.

    The insulated reusable bags, double or triple bagged, keep the milk cool on the way home, which gives it a much longer shelf live.

    Once milk warms up once, it starts aging rapidly, and you lose a week of lifetime.

  • Richard Aubrey

    What’s the environmental footprint of a case of the Toltec Two-Step?

  • Robert

    We get both paper bags and plastic ones from the grocery store, and reuse them in different ways.

    The paper bags are used to collect cardboard and newspaper for recycling — the whole bundle can then be tossed in the pulp grinder.

    And the plastic bags are used under the sink for kitchen trash. They can be tied at the top and put into the big garbage bags. This saves us having to buy new bags to do exactly the same thing, as commenter #2 notes.

    Someone should do a psychological study of the fetishes exhibited by Greenies (and the Left more generally). They fit the classic profile for obsessive-compulsive disorder.

    Keep this in mind when November 6th comes around.

  • Mark

    Here in Asia same thing. You get a cloth bag, place in some veggies, a couple of dry goods, piece of meat. Fine for a couplecof times, but then after a while the bag gets some mold or something leaks or there is condensation.

    Add to that, we used these as trash bags before, and that the reusable bags cost…

    It’s a joke…..

  • Tblakely

    Once again greenies make our lives more difficult and annoying. Lol, greenies are the New Age Puritans (NAPs). They’ve just replaced biblical sins with ‘green’ sins.

  • QET

    @Mr. Three Names: So, what you’re saying is that reusable bags don’t kill people; people who don’t clean their reusable bags kill people.

  • Koblog

    You’ve got to laugh at this foolishness. After all, we got plastic bags because the same greenies demanded we not kill trees to make paper bags.

    We never have enough of the plastic bags. Between picking up after our dog on his walks and cleaning the cat’s litter box, every single one of those wonderful, lightweight, perfectly sized plastic bags is reused.

    And they really don’t last forever, especially in sunlight. The sun, rain and wind eventually kill every man-made thing, even if it’s stuck against a fence somewhere. It’s simply a matter of time.


    “reusable bags are also cleanable. The solution is to clean your bags not end a beneficial idea.”

    First of all, nobody here is telling YOU what to do. If you want to use a reusable bag, go nuts. If you want your grapes stuffed into the same bag you used to haul last week’s chicken, its really not my concern. The argument made here is that WE should not be compelled to use re-usable bags if we don’t want to.

    Second, if your argument is that we shouldn’t lift the plastic bag ban because people should just wash their bags, I’d love to see how you would plan to enforce this. Will grocery stores be required to inspect reusable bags and refuse to stock if they appear to not have been washed?

    And finally, have any of the green unicorn chasers ever quantified precisely how beneficial is it really to the environment if people regularly re-wash their resuable bags? A single load of laundry uses 13 gallons of water and 3.5 kilowatt hours of energy on the med/med heat setting. How does that compare with the energy/ enviornmental impact of producing, say 5 or 6 plastic bags — especially since many people (myself included) use their plastic bags for trash and will be forced to purchase additional bags if they are not provided in grocery stores for free?

  • Ritchie The Riveter

    And what do you get when environmentally-conscious Soccer Mom goes to the store, after she puts her freshly-washed bags in the car seat where her youngest child had an “accident” a day or two ago?

    Once again, the jerking knees of the Watermelon Left, powered by a fundamentalist zeal to impose their One True Way of socio-environmental justice that makes Baptist preachers look like libertines out for beads at Mardi Gras, kick us back up the road of progress.

    This is what you get when a bias against any pursuit of happiness that does not fit one’s moral view of “fairness”, is mixed with a legitimate concern for not pooping in our nest … counterproductive behavior.

    Environmental “solutions” that trample economics and human nature are not solutions at all … for when people start to wonder where their next meal’s coming from, they are more likely to fillet Willy than free him … especially if they don’t have to go to the store to do it and risk a nasty infection.

  • Eurydice

    Nobody runs a washing machine for just one canvas bag, they’ll put it into another load of wash that they were planning to do anyway. And with the insulated bags, a little Lysol or a sanitizing wipe takes care of things. It’s not such a big deal.

    I’m not here as some kind of greenie. I uae all manner of bags available, paper for paper recycling, plastic as small trash bags and cloth bags because, as a city dweller with no car, they’re easier to carry. I think people should have a choice, but at the same time we have to figure out how not to bury ourselves in our own trash, Perhaps banning plastic bags isn’t the way to go, but headlines like “Plastic Bag Bans Lead to E-coli Deaths” just inflame without informing.

  • Greg

    What a load of crap this all is. I’ve used reusable bags for over 20 years (yes, they’ve been around for a long time) and I’ve NEVER had a problem. Most of the stuff that goes into a grocery bag is inert…it’s dry…and not a breeding ground for any bacteria. If you have a piece of fruit or a vegetable that’s been smashed or leaked juice, you clean it up and go on with your day.

    You don’t have to wash your bags over and over again. I go months and months without washing my bags. I’m NEVER sick. This is such a hysterical over-the-top report.

    Take some personal responsibility people. If your bags get soiled, wash them. But, I don’t they’re going to get a lot of bacteria from the toilet paper or canned goods or soda bottles you loaded in there. Jeez…grow up. This notion that we can’t live with germs and we have to get plastic and use it once and then throw it out is simply non sustainable. Wow.

  • Bartleby

    @Three Names: You are obviously just a shill for the Chlorine manufacturing lobby.

  • Despiser25

    Mr three names:

    Like every Liberal in existence you manage to ignore and belittle any facts not produced in places like East Anglia, bastions of honest scientific research. Yet you anything you disagree with is just another right-wing fake science enterprise.

    Liberalism is a Dangerous Mental Disorder, thanks for pointing it out for the World to see.

    Our progeny will be forensically going through Google and finding the WORMS like you that destroyed America for nothing but purely partisan politics.

    Is one of your 3 names Wasserman Schults by chance?

  • Karen

    They banned the plastic bags on Kauai last year, and I hate to admit it, but it made a significant difference in the amount of trash around. They aren’t hanging off roadside flora anymore (from being sucked out a car window or out of the back of a truck), and we used to always find them floating around in our near shore waters. The green sea turtles would try to eat them – not so good. Now we never see them. I was against the ban, but now . . . hey I can’t stand the gov. telling me what to do, but it made Kauai prettier.

  • Man in Madison

    I like free grocery plastic bags. Wonder how many resources are used up making those “green” bags. But, c’mon, put in meat juice and store in car? Did I miss sarcasm? Or maybe you could have your “researchers” poop in them, just to see what happens.

  • Greg F

    This may be a new study but it is old news.

    Reusable Grocery Bags Contaminated With E. Coli, Other Bacteria

    “Reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health, according to a joint food-safety research report issued today by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California”.

  • S.Lynn

    If my town bans them I plan to just return all my groceries into the cart after purchase, haul them to my vehicle and put them in a cardboard box and/or ice chest. I refuse to give the store one more nickle than I have to and I refuse to purchase reusable sacks to give anyone else a nickle (or give in to the envirotards).

  • fred

    It’s all about the anti-science Democrats feeling good about themselves.

  • Mark in Texas

    Robert@31:”Someone should do a psychological study of the fetishes exhibited by Greenies (and the Left more generally). They fit the classic profile for obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

    I am more inclined to go with Cluster B Personality Disorder.

  • Jerome

    “I think people should have a choice, but at the same time we have to figure out how not to bury ourselves in our own trash”.

    Hmmm. How about we put the trash in the garbage can, and have some people take it somewhere and bury it?

    Any other tough ones I can help you with?

  • Mark in Texas

    Greg@39:”You don’t have to wash your bags over and over again. I go months and months without washing my bags. I’m NEVER sick.”

    Mary Mallon was never sick either.

  • ajb

    Karen, I appreciate your experience on Kauai, but that isn’t going to justify bag bans in places like Los Angeles. I mean, the only way to make Los Angeles prettier is to … OK, everyone, free punch line opportunity!

  • james solbakken

    The issue with plastic bag bans is the same issue with seat belts, helmets, pate de foie gras bans, trans fat bans, etc ad nauseum.
    It is about POWER; it is about THEM telling US how it is and how it’s gonna be.
    THEY are in charge, and they need symbology to get the point across. WE must be conditioned NOT TO THINK, EVER!!!

  • Eurydice

    @Jerome #48 – good for you, you’ve achieved glib. At some point, where you want to bury your trash encroaches on where somebody else wants to live. I’m with Karen @#42 – why isn’t it a good thing that a beautiful island like Kauai be kept beautiful? Why isn’t it a valid choice to not want to see plastic bags strewn all over the highways?

    As I said before, I’m not anti-plastic bag. But it’s pretty ridiculous that so many people have been manipulated into battling each other by this post, which was clearly designed not to inform but to attract maximum political comment.

  • Robert

    The problems from inadequately cleaned reusable bags seems clear enough to me.

    But the bigger issue bursting out all over here can be summed up as carrying on a political argument using the language of safety.

    Reusable bags are problematic unless they are cleaned thoroughly after at most a few uses. This will be done by those OCD types I mentioned in #31. But it won’t be done by most people, thus contributing to a public health problem.

    The cause of all this agita is the Left’s insistence that it knows better than we what should be done — and that it uses the power of the state to cram its preferences down our throats.

    The road back begins November 6th.

  • Nate Whilk

    I almost always use paper bags. I bring them back to the store to use again for bagging groceries. I’ve never gotten sick from them. When they get torn or dirty, I just throw them out and get new ones. Every so often I get plastic bags to use for trash.

  • PP

    Survival of the fittest at its finest. If people are too stupid to know to wash their bags, are they really going to blame the bags when they get sick?

    Sadly, the answer is obviously “yes.” But it’s no one’s fault but their own for having disgusting hygiene practices. Wonder how often they change their underwear?

  • Light

    We’ve banned plastic bags here in Maui because the wind picks them up from the landfill, and anywhere else they blow out of and distribute themselves among the trees, roads, and then the ocean where they can do real damage. I’m not an enviro-nut, but I don’t exactly like seeing my paradise lined in polyethylene.


    Re #39: “Take some personal responsibility people.”

    You really don’t get how ironic that comment is, do you?

  • Mark in Texas


    As you said in an earlier post, you live in a city and don’t have a car. That experience tends to give people an unrealistic understanding of just how much empty land there is out there that would be perfectly suitable for use as land fill. Really, it is not a problem.

  • Bernal

    These bags are perfect carbon sequestration devices. Save the Earth! Besides without plastic bags how’m I supposed to pick up dog crap?

  • 49erDweet

    Higher rates of illness in San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Some see that as a bug, others as a feature.

  • Texas Patriot

    I don’t recall one person getting E-Coli prior to the use of plastic bags when paper bags were used. We’re a society of do-gooders bring down destruction upon the human race by not thinking through many of our decisions!!!

  • JimC

    As someone who remembers the good old days of negotiating icy parking lots with a 15 pound bag of groceries clutched to the chest, I’d say the main public health problem from getting rid of the plastic bags will be broken ankles and wrists. I bet they’ve saved many millions in medical costs over the last 15 years or so.

  • Mike4891

    I just see another reason to be vegan.

  • Terry Robbins

    Regardless of whether the ban is a good idea, this study is quite a weak argument. And bathing something in meet juice and not washing it, is a bad idea.

    Arguing that washing of tote bags is bad because of significantly more energy and water resources needed, this sounds very much like some super-Green fantasy. It just doesnt make a global difference whether you wash your tote back once or a hundred times in its lifetime.

  • http://none DL

    Regarding the sanitary issue: I work as a cashier and I can tell you that many people, unfortunately, do not wash their bags. Bags come through that smell bad, are covered in dirt, hair, and a few are just plain filthy. I had one recently that came through smelling like urine. Of course the majority aren’t quite that bad but for the most part reusable bags don’t get washed or cared for in a sanitary manner and that definitely matters.

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