Plastic Bags and Your Health

This website examines the impact of plastic shopping bags on your health, the health of the environment and the health of our food.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the plastic bag industry in Canada was declared an essential industry because of the important role that “single-use” (read: “first-use”) plastic bags play in protecting the health of Canadians from viruses and other disease-causing pathogens. Governments also suspended reusable bag use to protect frontline workers and consumers.

The debate about plastic shopping bags has focused 100% on the environment and completely ignored the essential role that plastic shopping bags and other single-use plastics play in protecting Canadians from disease-causing pathogens – viruses, bacteria, mold and fungi.

Public policy directives on bags and media coverage have been laser-focused on the leakage of plastic into nature due to human littering and poor waste management practices.

Public health and the role that “single-use” plastic bags play as an important public health resource in disease prevention has been completely ignored.

“Single-use” plastic shopping bags are an important public health tool. As the most sanitary bag option, plastic shopping bags help prevent the transmission of foodborne viruses and bacteria like the norovirus, E-coli, salmonella and campylobacter which affect millions of Canadians each year accounting for 11,000 hospitalizations and even deaths.

The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything once scientists determined that the coronavirus can survive for 72 hours on plastic. Many retailers then suspended the use of reusable shopping bags as a precaution to curtail the spread of the virus and protect store personnel. For more information on reusable bag suspensions, go to *Covid Reusable Bag Suspensions* or go to allaboutreusablebags.ca.

Preventing Illness and Death

Protecting Public Health

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the necessity of single-use plastic shopping bags as an essential public health resource. What happens if plastic shopping bags are removed from the market by bans?

The answer is simple. The factories will close and we will lose the capacity to manufacture plastic bags and other important public health resources here in Canada. Jobs and expertise will be lost. Canada will have no capacity to ramp up production of single-use plastics in the event of another pandemic.

Food-related illness, hospitalizations and deaths in Canada

The Stats

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada 4 million Canadians (1 in people) get sick each year from contaminated food. Nationally, over 11,500 hospitalizations and 240 deaths occur each year due to food-related illnesses

Public health is a 24/7 and 365 day/year priority that needs to continue even after the current COVID pandemic subsides.

One of the chief benefits of plastic shopping bags and other single-use plastic food packaging is that they help prevent our food from being contaminated by noxious pathogens – viruses like the coronavirus and norovirus, bacteria like E.coli, molds, and yeast that can make you sick and can even be fatal.

The Most Common Causes of Foodborne Illness and Death

Norovirus

The leading cause of food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations.

Illnesses: 1 million, Hospitalizations: 1,180, Deaths: 21

Listeria

The deadliest of these four pathogens, ranked lowest in overall incidents but resulted in the most deaths.

Illnesses: 178, Hospitalizations: 150, Deaths: 35

Salmonella

Contributes to 1 in 4 hospitalizations of all food-borne illnesses.

Illnesses: 88,000, Hospitalizations: 925, Deaths: 17

Ecoli O157

One of the top food-borne bacteria causing severe illness.

Illnesses: 12,800, Hospitalizations: 245, Deaths: 8

Campylobacter

The third leading cause of food-borne illnesses and hospitalizations.

Illnesses: 145,000, Hospitalizations: 565, Deaths: 5

Coronavirus

Causes COVID-19

Protecting Environmental Health

The science is clear. Plastic shopping bags are the best environmental option. They are reusable, recyclable, and the most hygienic bag on the market. On top of that, they have the lowest carbon footprint of any bag.

A number of government scientific studies called Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) prove that plastic shopping bags have a much lower carbon footprint and the lowest global warming potential of any carry bag on the market.

The three most recent have been done by the United Kingdom, the Government of Denmark, and the Government of Quebec (Canada), and they all reached the same conclusion that plastic shopping bags have the lowest environmental impact. They all found that plastic shopping bags are not single-use, but multi-purpose, multi-use bags with very high reuse rates. In the Quebec study, the reuse of “single-use” plastic shopping bags was 77%.

Click below to explore how plastic shopping bags are by far the best bag environmentally.

Life Cycle Assessments

Quebec Government LCA

Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags 

The Quebec Government’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) compared the environmental impact of all shopping bags available in Quebec in order to determine which bag has the lowest carbon footprint using North American data.

The LCA showed definitively that the thin 17-micron HDPE plastic shopping bag is the best bag environmentally and economically. It found that reusable bags have a much greater carbon footprint because of their resource intensity and require multiple reuses to match the environmental impact of the 17-micron thin bag used just once.

According to the Quebec Government LCA, the Polypropylene (PP) woven and PP non-woven bags need an equivalent number of reuses to equal one use of the thin plastic bag ranging from 16 to 98 reuses for the woven PP reusable and 11 to 59 reuses for the non-woven, depending on the environmental indicator.

The key finding of the report is that “no alternative to banning plastic bags offers an environmental benefit. …] In this context, banning [thin HDPE bags] would not be advantageous.

https://www.recyc-quebec.gouv.qc.ca/sites/default/files/documents/acv-sacs-emplettes-rapport-complet.pdf

Denmark Government LCA Ministry of Environment and Food

Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags

The Government of Denmark LCA of grocery carrier bags found that thin plastic shopping bags have the lowest environmental impact of all bags in their marketplace and that reusable bags have to be reused multiple times to provide the same environmental performance of the average conventional LDPE carry bag reused as a waste bin bag before incineration.

They measured the carbon footprint and global warming impact of each reusable by comparing each reusable bag against the environmental impact of a thin plastic bag used just once; the thin plastic bag was used as the standard.

This piece of science found that the minimum number of reusable bag reuses to equal the environmental impact of the thin plastic shopping bag was very high.

The Nonwoven PP Reusable had to be reused 52 times and the Woven PP Reusable had to be reused 45 times to equal the environmental impact of the thin plastic bag used just once. Similarly, Recycled PET Reusable Bags had to be reused 84 times; Polyester PET bags – 35 times, Unbleached paper – 43 times, and Organic Cotton – 2,000 times.

https://www2.mst.dk/Udgiv/publications/2018/02/9788793614734.pdf

U.K. Government LCA Environment Agency

This LCA, as with the Quebec and Danish LCAs, found that the conventional plastic shopping bag (HDPE) outperformed all alternatives, even reusables, on environmental performance.

Conventional plastic bags have a much lower global warming potential than all other bags on the market. Heavier, sturdier reusable bags of all materials have a higher global warming potential. For example, the production of cotton with its heavy pesticide and water use has a negative impact on the environmental benefit of cotton bags.

A cotton reusable bag has to be reused 131 times to be as good environmentally as a plastic shopping bag used just once. Non-woven polypropylene bags would have to be reused 11 times to match environmentally the conventional thin bag used just once. Paper bags would have to be reused three times to lower their global warming potential to match that of a conventional HDPE plastic shopping bag being used just once.

Amount of Primary Reuse Required for Reusable Bags to Match Environmental Performance of Conventional Plastic Shopping Bag Used Just Once

Type of Carrier Bag HDPE Bag
(No Secondary Reuse)
HDPE Bag
(40.3% reused as kitchen catchers)
HDPE Bag
(100% reused as kitchen catchers)
HDPE Bag
(reused 3 times)
Plastic Bag 1 2 2 3
LDPE Bag 4 5 9 12
Non-woven PP Bag 11 14 26 33
Cotton Bag 131 173 327 393

 

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachm ent_data/file/291023/scho0711buanee.pdf  

Misconceptions

The attack on plastic shopping bags has been driven by misinformation and misconceptions about plastic shopping bags related to reuse, recyclability and litter.

1. Reuse: Plastic shopping bags have very high reuse rates. The Quebec LCA found a 77% reuse rate and the Ontario Government, a 60% rate. Plastic bags are multi-purpose bags used for a variety of things as totes, lunch bags and to pick up after your puppy.

2. Recycling: Plastic shopping bags are highly recyclable. Not only are the bags recyclable but they are actually recycled right here in Canada because Canadians have a strong national network of recyclers who take bags which are recycled and remade into a wide variety of products like outdoor furniture, flooring, water pipes, office equipment, plastic wood etc.

3. Litter: Plastic shopping bags are tiny fraction of litter.
The biggest misconception though is that plastic shopping bags are a major litter item when in fact they represent less than 0.4 percent of all litter items by count. And litter study after litter study shows that the bags represent 0.4 percent of all litter items.

Environmental Health

Exploding the Plastic Bag Litter Myth

Plastic shopping bags are NOT a litter problem in North America. Study after study shows that they are a tiny fraction of litter in the range of 0.4%.

But people do litter and this bad behaviour needs to be addressed through public education and better waste management recovery of the bags and other plastics. Plastic does not belong in nature.

In Canada bags and plastic packaging are well managed through sophisticated waste management and recycling programs. Canadians have embraced product stewardship and accept responsibility for their bags practising the 3R’s – reduce, reuse and recycle their bags. Plastic shopping bags are 100% recyclable and can be returned to retail all across Canada. They are also recovered in municipal curbside and depot systems.

The industry has been working hard to expand recovery options for plastic bags and are pilot testing new collection and recycling systems to recover bags and other flexible plastic packaging for recycling.

Plastic Shopping Bags – The Litter Studies

Plastic shopping bags are tiny portion of the waste stream, so it makes sense that municipal litter audits conducted over the past 20 years all across North America show that plastic shopping bags are a tiny part of litter at less than 1%; 0.4% on average.

Bags are such a small component of litter that a ban on bags will have no impact on litter reduction.

North American Municipal Litter Studies – 102,951 litter observations show Plastic Bags 0.4% of Litter

Whether it is San Francisco, San Jose, or Toronto, plastic shopping bags are a miniscule part of litter.

Recent scientific litter audit data has been provided by MGM Management, one of North America’s leading experts in accumulated litter audits. They have their head office in British Columbia. MGM undertook to review 44 litter audits that it been commissioned to conduct by municipalities across North America over the past 14 years. They looked at 44 litter audits and 102,951 litter observations and found:

Plastic Shopping Bags – Retail Bag Litter as a % of the Litter Stream

Food Health

Perhaps the greatest benefit of plastic bags and other plastic food packaging is protecting the health of our food from contamination by viruses, bacteria, mold, insects, vermin and dirt.

Reusable bags unless cleaned after every use can harbour harmful and deadly pathogens that can contaminate our food. First use plastic shopping bags provide a 100% sanitary environment to transport food from store to home.

Plastic is an essential tool to keep food fresher longer and prevent food waste. Food wastage is a $31 billion a year problem in Canada with 47% of the waste coming from individual Canadians.

The average Canadian wastes 170 kilos or 375 pounds of food of which 80% is edible. This costs the average household $28 of food a week or $1,456 annually. http://tfpc.to/food-waste-landing/food-waste-theissue

Food Just Lasts Longer Using Plastic Wrap

Cucumber with Plastic
Lasts 11 days longer

Bananas with Plastic
Lasts 21 days longer

Beef with Plastic
Lasts 26 days longer

Food Wastage in Canada Has Climate Change Impacts

Given the vast resources and energy that goes into growing and marketing the food to get it to our tables, preventing food waste is an important public policy goal particularly since it has a huge impact on the environment.

The food wasted by Canadians generates 193 million tonnes of greenhouse gases which is the equivalent of 41 million cars driven continuously for one year.

Food waste going to landfill is a serious driver of climate change. Landfill organic matter creates methane gas which is 25 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Public Health Research

Over the past decade, there has been considerable research on reusable bags and their ability to act as an incubator and transmitter of viruses, bacteria, fungi and mold. This research has focused in two areas:   1. The inside and 2. The exterior of the bag.

1. The inside of the bag and the potential cross-contamination of groceries carried in the bag surfaces by disease-causing pathogens inside the bag and on the bag surface.

2. The bag as a transmitter of viruses, bacteria and other pathogens to the surrounding environment and people.

Multiple studies have been conducted by prestigious institutions including John Hopkins Medical School, the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Health, Princeton University, UCLA, the University of Arizona, International Outbreak Museum and Sporometrics (link to study), Canadian experts in environmental and medical microbiology.

The findings of the studies have been directionally consistent.

Study Findings

The public health research found that the interior of reusable bags can become an active microbial habitat and breeding ground for bacteria, coliform bacteria, yeast and mold concluding that reusable bags can pose a significant public health risk due to possible cross-contamination of food placed in the bag unless cleaned. The studies also found that washing or cleaning reusable bags removes 99.9% of all pathogens.

Other studies found that reusable bags can transmit the norovirus on their surface. This mode of viral transmission raised serious concerns about the use of reusable bags during the covid-19 pandemic particularly when scientists advised that the coronavirus can survive up to 72 hours on plastic and hard surfaces, use of reusable bags was temporarily suspended.

Cross Contamination Research

 

2009 Canadian Study by Sporometrics – Experts in Environmental and Medical Microbiology

A Microbiological Study of Reusable Bags and `First or single …

May 2009

This was the first such study done on the use of reusable bags in North America and their potential to transmit pathogens to food.

Report written by Dr. Richard Summerbell, Ph. D.  who is Director of Research Services at Sporometrics, in Toronto, Canada.

Sporometrics are experts in environmental and medical microbiology. Dr. Summerbell is also Associate Professor, Occupational & Environmental Health Division, at the University of Toronto.

This Canadian study found the following:

  • The test findings clearly support concerns that reusable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms. This is supported by the high bacterial counts showing that the bag surface can harbour or breed substantial bacterial populations.
  • This study provides strong evidence that reusable bags could pose a significant risk to the safety of the food supply if used to transport food from store to home. Public health risks relate to the possible cross contamination of food placed in bags contaminated by previous use in successive trips, as well as transfer of contaminants in the check-out packing process from one bag to another.
  • The possible disturbance and dispersal of mold spores from the contaminated bags into the air could also be a cause for concern, particularly for checkout clerks.
  • The swab testing demonstrates that single use plastic shopping bags and other first use carry bag options are more hygienic than reusables.
  • For those with health conditions affecting the immunity (i.e. those with hard to control forms of Type II diabetes, those on heavy corticosteroid doses or those with serious immunocompromising conditions), first use bags are a safer health choice.
  • In future cases of food poisoning, family doctors and public health officials should add the reusable grocery bag to the list of possible sources of contamination to be investigated. The 13 million annual cases of food poisoning in Canada often involve contaminated surfaces passing bacteria on to food.
  • The use of reusable bags as a multi-purpose tote by a majority of bag owners in this study is a cause for concern, particularly if the reusable bags are used to transport gym equipment or diapers. Gym equipment may carry drug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus strains, skin infecting dermatophyte fungi and other dangerous microorganisms.

In conclusion, the drafting of protocols on the hygienic use of reusables should be considered a public health policy priority including the suggested regular replacement of their reusable bag. This is especially true at a time when governments and retailers are making strong efforts to reduce the use of “single-use”/ “first-use” carry bags and replace them with carry bags that are used repeatedly by consumers.

Assessment of the Potential for Cross-contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags

David L. Williams, 1 Charles P. Gerba, 1 * Sherri Maxwell1 and Ryan G. Sinclair2 1 Dept. of Soil, Water, and Environmental Science, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721, USA; and 2 Loma Linda University School of Public Health, Dept. of Environmental Health, Loma Linda, CA 92354, USA

https://lluh.org/sites/medical-center.lomalindahealth.org/files/docs/LIVE-IT-Sinclair-Article-Cross-Contamination-Reusable-Shopping-Bags.pdf?rsource=medical-cente

Transmission Research

Report: 2010 Oregon norovirus outbreak tied to reusable grocery bag

By Michelle Castillo | May 9, 2012

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/report-2010-oregon-norovirus-outbreak-tied-to-reusable-grocery-bag

“This is the first-ever reported case of transmitting this virus with an inanimate object, basically,” Dr. Kimberly K. Repp, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Washington County Department of Health and Human Services in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Norovirus transmitted from Reusable Bag

https://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/05/the-case-of-the-contaminated-reusable-grocery-bag/

Study: The Spread of a Norovirus Surrogate via Reusable Grocery Bags in a Grocery Supermarket

https://www.neha.org/sites/default/files/flipping_book/june-2018-jeh/files/assets/basic-html/page-8.html#


Policy by the Province of Ontario – Restaurant and food services health and safety during COVID-19

Chief Medical Officer as part of tips to employers advised – “Do not accept re-usable bags or containers that are to be handled by your staff.”

https://www.ontario.ca/page/restaurant-and-food-services-health-and-safety-during-covid-19

Ban Impact on Disease Spread

 

Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d842/d2d5394edbe91e2019a32739ead38f738d9e.pdf

Research conducted by Jonathan Klick and Joshua D. Wright from the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Law & Economics research paper concluded that the San Francisco ban on plastic bags has led to an increase in bacterial foodborne illnesses and deaths. Klick & Wright found that San Francisco’s policy of banning of plastic bags has caused a significant increase in gastrointestinal bacterial infections and a “46 percent increase in the deaths from foodborne illnesses”.

COVID-19 Transmission Research

 

Letter to the New England Journal of Medicine on the aerosol and surface stability of COVID 19 now called SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1

https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2004973

John Hopkins Medical School, the Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the National Institute of Health, Princeton University, UCLA

This letter was published on March 17, 2020, at NEJM.org, and signed by 13 scientists.

“TO THE EDITOR:

A novel human coronavirus that is now named severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) (formerly called HCoV-19) emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 and is now causing a pandemic.1 We analyzed the aerosol and surface stability of SARS-CoV-2 and compared it with SARS-CoV-1, the most closely related human coronavirus.

We evaluated the stability of SARS-CoV-2 and SARS-CoV-1 in aerosols and on various surfaces and estimated their decay rates using a Bayesian regression model. We found that the stability of SARS-CoV-2 was similar to that of SARS-CoV-1 under the experimental circumstances tested. SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces. On copper, no viable SARS-CoV-2 was measured after 4 hours and no viable SARS-CoV-1 was measured after 8 hours. On cardboard, no viable SARS-CoV-2 was measured after 24 hours and no viable SARS-CoV-1 was measured after 8 hours.

The findings provide information for pandemic mitigation efforts.”

How Long Can the Virus That Cases Covid-19 Live on Surfaces?

Carolyn Machamer, a cell biologist who specializes in coronaviruses, discusses the latest research on the virus that causes COVID-19

https://hub.jhu.edu/2020/03/20/sars-cov-2-survive-on-surfaces/