WILMINGTON/TEWKSBURY — On Friday, July 10, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health rescinded the order banning the use of reusable bags for shopping. The ban, put in place as part of COVID-19 safety measures by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on March 25, instructed grocery stores and pharmacies not to bag items using reusable shopping bags, and instead use only paper or single-use plastic bags.
The restriction on the use of reusable bags during the pandemic was met with controversy, however. In the early days and weeks of the pandemic, scientists were still learning how the virus spread. Surface contamination was as much a suspect as was airborne transmission. While some reports stated that the virus could live for up to three days on plastic, others found no link between reusable bags and contracting the virus.
There has since been evidence the plastics industry influenced such guidance. Of note, a letter from the Plastics Industry Association to HHS Secretary Alex Azar published by Politico claims that single use plastic bags are the “safest choice” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Environmental activists see this as an opportunistic play by the industry to fight back against single use plastic bag bans. Known as disaster capitalism, the move has been criticized for using one public health crisis to exploit another.
A scientific report published June 8 in Environmental Science and Technology evaluated the studies cited by the plastics industry, finding that “Importantly, none of the three studies investigated the presence, survival, or infectivity of any coronavirus family members (e.g., SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)).”
In other words, it was not an apples-to-apples comparison. The report, authored by R. C. Hale and B. Song of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, William and Mary, and made available through the American Chemical Society, indicates that in grocery stores, person to person contact and person to surface contact, such as via door handles or shopping carts, are more likely to be a source of transmission of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) “than infrequently handled reusable grocery bags.”
When news that reusable bags could again be used by consumers was announced, word spread quickly throughout the Commonwealth. While stores may be granted time locally to use up their stock of single use plastic bags, bans that were in place prior to the emergency order are now back in effect.
According to Brad Verter, founder of the Mass Green Network, via email, “As of this writing, over 130 municipalities in Massachusetts have passed regulations to limit plastic bags, and more are in the works. We are all gratified to see the Commonwealth back on track to reduce plastic waste.”