The Health Benefits (Yes, Benefits) of Plastic Shopping Bags


When it comes to plastic shopping bags, we hear very little about the health benefits of using them when we go to Walmart, the mall, Home Depot, or the grocery store. Mostly, all the media seems to be interested in presenting is the negative side, how they don’t exactly break down easily and can be a risk to wildlife on land or in the sea. In other words, the negative environmental impact of the bags.

Curiously enough, though, We the People seem to take all that media hoopla with a grain of salt. As of today, December 13, 2013, Googling “plastic shopping bags” brings up 38,900,000 results. That’s the neutral search.

Trying “plastic shopping bags bad” plummets the results figure to a mere a third of neutral, just 10,800,000…while changing that to “plastic shopping bags good” jumps it way up to 53,800,000. Rewording to “plastic shopping bags good or bad” brings Google search right back to neutral territory, 33,800,000 results.

In our local area, the town of Bisbee–which happens to be the Cochise County seat–has been moving to ban plastic bag usage altogether. The last time I picked up a few things from the Safeway store in Bisbee, I seem to remember getting plastic bags as usual…but when the day comes that it’s reusable bags or nothing, our Bisbee Safeway trips will slip on down from “occasional” to “approximately never”.

That day may not be far off. Last July 17, Shar Poirer wrote in the Sierra Vista Herald/Review as follows:

Bisbee prepares to roll out plastic bag ban

BISBEE — After an hour or so of discussion on whether it is better to charge people for single use plastic bags or just banning them outright, the city council decided on an outright ban and instructed the city attorney to craft a new ordinance….

Why is the relatively small town of Bisbee, aside from being a known liberal bastion, striving to be the first community in Arizona to ban plastic shopping bags? Simply this: The bags “fly around a lot” and “create an eyesore”.

There you go, Bisbee. Aesthetics trump health concerns, you bet. That’s keeping your priorities straight.

What health concerns, you ask?

Our blue tote full of plastic bags from various stores.  We use these for various purposes, the most frequent being cat manure holding duty when scooping the litter box.

Our blue tote full of plastic bags from various stores. We use these for various purposes, the most frequent being cat manure holding duty when scooping the litter box.

Unsurprisingly, a number of studies have shown e coli infection spikes where reusable cloth shopping bags are used in place of single use plastic shopping bags. That’s health concern #1 when it comes to banning the plastic bags. Follow our lead, say the politicians. It’s good for the planet.

It is not, however, good for the people on the planet.

In one study, 8% of reusable shopping bags in San Francisco were found to harbor E. coli bacteria in measurable quantities. There have been plenty of “debunkers” posting on the Internet since that study came out, mostly claiming the study was “truly unscientific”, but it seems likely you don’t need Grade A double blind studies to link seldom (if ever) washed cloth bags with booming populations of happy little microbes.

When you come right down to it, it’s only common sense. I’d be willing to wager a significant sum that a full scale investigation (with appropriate controls) would find a lot more than “just” E. coli in those cloth bags. How about salmonella, especially after you brought home that package of raw chicken that leaked all over in there? Eh?

Frankly, salmonella scares me a bit more than E. coli does…though I’m no big fan of either one.

Bottom line:
Spikes in of E. coli infections have been correlated with the inception of plastic bag bans in numerous cases already. The “debunkers” tend to swiftly point out that correlation is not causation, which in a statistical sense is most certainly true. I learned that much in college Statistics 101. Yet there are correlations, and then there are correlations. If the bans were dropped and the E. coli cases subsequently dropped as well, that would pretty much remove all doubt–but don’t hold your breath. This is politics more than anything else, and politicians are notoriously stubborn when it comes to reversing negative legislation to which they are ideologically attached.

Moving on to the possibility of using paper bags, which were our classic standard before single use plastics rose to prominence. There’s just one real problem with paper bags:

Cockroaches love the glue that holds paper bags together.

They do. They really do.

Now, if you live in an area where cockroaches are simply unknown–at the North Pole, for example, or perhaps down south with the penguins in the Antarctic–concern about the possibility of attracting cockroaches is probably not an issue. However, most of us don’t have that luxury. This is not a roach blog, so we’ll not go into the cockroach war stories, but most readers know what I mean.

Dealing with the filthy little brown beasties is a pain in the tuchas at best and a serious health hazard (including a mental health hazard) at worst. Few of us would care to knowingly attract the bugs.

We do pick up a paper bag every now and then. For instance, that’s what Sutherland’s uses to hold their customers’ purchases of pointy hardware items such as nails or roofing screws. Those points will pierce thin plastic bags like nobody’s business, so….

A paper shopping bag from Sutherland's.  This one holds several pounds of roofing screws for the back porch construction project.

A paper shopping bag from Sutherland’s. This one holds several pounds of roofing screws for the back porch construction project.

Once we have a paper bag on the premises, though, its contents are transferred to something else and the bag itself is consigned to the trash, awaiting its turn at the burn barrel. (We live off grid. City residents obviously do not have burn barrels at home.) Pam is totally with me on this one. There were times in her life, especially when living in Maryland, that saving a little stack of paper bags for future use was a good way to create a brand new Cockroach Central community. She’s known about the glue attraction factor for decades.

Over the years, we’ve developed a positive attitude toward plastic bags and a less positive view of most other types of shopping containers. On the other hand, one “debunker” states that he refuses to use any bags at all but, instead, lugs his groceries from the store, loose–I’d guess he must have to make a lot of trips–and deposits them (loose) in the trunk of his car.

Oh, that’s really sanitary, right there. Never mind the usual dust and dirt and grease and whatnot. What about the mouse that made itself a home in our Subaru a few years ago, refusing to leave until I finally trapped him out? By the time that little odyssey was over, the car’s various surfaces, including the trunk, had acquired deposits of mouse fur, mouse turds (hantavirus, anyone?), mouse urine (they pee every few steps, you know), mouse nest, and–at the very end–mouse blood.

Yeah. I’m going to plop our fresh fruit and vegetables right down on that sort of surface. You betcha. That’s a winner of an idea, right there.

Our local coyotes seem to have found a use for plastic shopping bags, too. The other day, while I was out wandering about the property, I came across a lo-ong bit of coyote scat. At least seven inches long, it was…and aside from the unusual length, there was something funny looking about it.

Closer inspection revealed a sizeable scrap of plastic shopping bag. The coyote had obviously swallowed it, right along with whatever was inside the bag, and then passed it on through the animal’s digestive system.

That particular bit of plastic bag may well have been teeming with all sorts of interesting bacteria–but for the most part, single use plastic is healthier for us humans than any alternative the inventors have found to date.

That’s our bag and we’re sticking to it.