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Backlash grows against reusable grocery bags as virus spreads

Cambridge is temporarily forbidding the use of reusable bags at retail stores, amid fears that the bags may spread the coronavirus.
Cambridge is temporarily forbidding the use of reusable bags at retail stores, amid fears that the bags may spread the coronavirus.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty

Four years after becoming the state’s first municipality to ban the use of plastic bags and impose fees for acquiring others at grocery stores, Cambridge this week issued an emergency order temporarily forbidding the use of reusable bags at retail stores, reflecting a growing fear they could be spreading the coronavirus.

“While we understand how strongly the Cambridge community cares about recycling items whenever possible, reusable checkout bags that have not been sufficiently disinfected could potentially contribute to the spread of COVID-19 among staff and customers at these establishments,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui of Cambridge said in a statement, adding that the order also eliminates fees for bags. “This immediate action is necessary to prevent and minimize the spread of COVID-19.”

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New Hampshire took similar action last week, apparently the first such statewide ban on reusable bags. Governor Chris Sununu ordered all grocery stores, supermarkets, and other retail stores to use paper or plastic.

“Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, working around the clock to keep New Hampshire families fed,” Sununu said. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home, given the potential risk to baggers, grocers, and customers.”

It’s unclear what, if any, danger the mix of popular cotton, canvas, and nylon bags actually pose. Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, doubted such measures would do much to help.

“This seems like a very small contribution to control,” he said. “Pardon the expression, but it seems like grasping at straws.”

He added: “It is a data-free approach, but I can't say it won’t help.”

Some longtime advocates for banning plastic bags, a longstanding source of pollution responsible for gumming up the works of recycling equipment — were also dubious about such measures prohibiting reusable bags.

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“Whether something is safe or not depends on the system around it,” said Kirstie Pecci, director of the zero waste project at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.

For example, she said, she washes her reusable bags frequently, making them as safe as her clothes or dishes.

“I am aware of no evidence that reusable bags are less safe than plastic or paper bags,” she said. “As far as I know, the virus would survive on all surfaces for about the same duration. So the question is how they are handled, and by whom.”

In a post on its website, the Massachusetts Food Association, which represents supermarkets throughout the state, urged all municipalities to suspend restrictions on plastic and ban reusable bags.

Such measures would protect cashiers and other employees at supermarkets; reduce shortages of paper bags, much of which come from China and elsewhere overseas; and could be more hygienic, said the group, which has previously supported a proposed statewide ban on plastic bags.

“These bags could potentially spread infectious diseases, particularly if the bags are used by those who may be exposed,” the group said. “Time is of the essence for cities and towns to act to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Other longtime opponents of plastic bags agreed that it was reasonable to lift the ban now — temporarily.

“Out of an abundance of caution, and recognizing there’s still much we don’t know how this disease spreads, we understand that some cities, towns, and supermarkets are temporarily lifting these bans,” said Janet Domenitz, executive director of MASSPIRG, a Boston-based advocacy group.

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She added: “The jury is out on whether this is an effective measure. At the same time, most Bay Staters agree that single-use plastic is a source of waste and litter. It’s made from fossil fuels and harms our marine life. We look forward to getting back to reducing all of it soon.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.