The pandemic has led to a lot of confusion about whether it's safe to bring reusable bags into grocery stores. While some stores allow them, others don’t. The science on how the virus spreads has evolved — and some question the need to continue reusable bag bans.
The environment has been important to Indianapolis resident Clare Skeehan for a long time. She’s vegetarian, she recycles, and — of course — she always brings her reusable bags to the grocery store.
But since the pandemic, she’s been forced to use plastic bags. Skeehan said her grocery stores do allow reusable bags at the self-checkout, but she has trouble putting items on the conveyor belt. She has severe arthritis and a condition that puts pressure on the nerves in her spine. She mostly gets around in a wheelchair.
"Clerks don't want to touch my stuff because I guess they think I could give them–they could they could pick up a virus that way," Skeehan said.
Skeehan says she sympathizes with the clerks — she doesn't want to get COVID-19 either — but she still feels guilty about all of the waste generated by those plastic bags.
Of the grocery store chains we found in the state, about half of them either no longer allow reusable bags or limit where customers can use them. But just how likely is it that a reusable bag could spread COVID-19?
How Our Knowledge Of The Virus Has Evolved
When the pandemic first hit the U.S., scientists weren’t as sure about how the virus spreads as they are today. They thought touching infected surfaces and then touching your eyes or mouth could be a big contributor.
Kevin Slates is a clinical associate professor in Indiana University’s School of Public Health and directs its industrial hygiene lab. He said now we know the main way COVID-19 spreads is from person to person — so when an infected person coughs or talks — and not from touching something like a grocery bag.
"They need a host to live — and that's a good thing. So when viruses deposited on the surfaces they’re not very stable," Slates said.
Slates said environmental conditions — like temperature and air flow — also weaken the virus.
"What I would say the risk is low. And is there a risk? Yes. Is it a primary route of exposure? No," he said.
Even so, the science on COVID-19 is evolving all the time. Slates said grocery stores are likely acting out of an abundance of caution to keep their employees safe. We reached out to several grocery store chains in Indiana, but all of them declined to be interviewed.
Plastics Industry Uses 'Unsanitary' Reusable Bag Image To Its Advantage
But this perception of single-use plastic bags as more sanitary has had a much wider impact than grocery stores alone. In mid-March, the Plastics Industry Association asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to speak out against plastic bag bans which it said were putting the public’s safety at risk.
Some states have put their plastic bag bans on hold because of the pandemic. That’s caused some concern among groups trying to reduce plastic waste. Miriam Gordon is the policy director for UPSTREAM. She said her group has spent the past 15 years advocating for laws that encourage the use of reusable bags.
"We saw this as a big threat to all the progress that we had made," Gordon said.
But Gordon says many of the states that initially halted their plastic bag bans have put them back into effect. She feels confident that once the pandemic is over, grocery stores won’t see a need to prohibit reusable bags.
Wash Your Reusable Bags And Your Hands
Though the risk is low, there are things you can do to help make sure your reusable bags don’t spread COVID-19.
"I really encourage people to use the grocery bags that are made out of cotton or any kind of washable fabric," said Ryan Sinclair, an environmental microbiologist at Loma Linda University School of Public Health. “It could be like polyester or nylon, but as long as it's able to be washed in a washing machine at a higher temperature.”
Sinclair said you should also try to leave your bags in your cart instead of putting them on the checkout counter — which is a breeding ground for all kinds of germs.
"The other thing on top of all of this is of course wash your hands before and after you come out of the grocery store," he said. "Because it's a huge place and it's got a lot of people moving through it. So the best thing to do is wash your hands."
Neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention nor the state of Indiana has released guidance on whether or not reusable bags should be allowed in grocery stores during the pandemic.
Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.