The Health Costs of Plastic Grocery Bag Bans

Many jurisdictions have implemented bans or taxes on plastic grocery bags based on environmental concerns. In 2007, San Francisco enacted a county-wide ban that included large grocery stores and drugstores. Los Angeles, Palo Alto, and other cities in California have followed suit.

In research carried out at PERC this summer, Jonathan Klick, a PERC Lone Mountain Fellow, argues that reusable grocery bags contain potentially harmful bacteria, especially coliform bacteria such as E. coli. Klick finds that, in the wake of San Francisco’s ban, deaths and ER visits related to these bacteria spiked as soon as the ban went into effect. For more on this ongoing research, watch our interview with Klick above.


  1. Good points. I find it hard to think that people would switch back to plastic bags where they’ve made a commitment to using reusable bags. So what’s the work around? Perhaps stores could provide vinegar sprays to use on the inside of the bags? Or put up signs reminding people to wash their bags?

    • I think the latter – I find this annoying but appreciate what they’re trying to do. Educating people to wash reusable bags is the way to go. I never would’ve thought of it except for obvious spills and such. I will now.

    • Solution. 1 extra box of home plastic trash bags and use them to take to the supermarket to fill with groceries. Use until damaged. Plastic is Plastic.

  2. Well, the solution to dirty reusable bags is obvious. The public health department should institute mandatory, random testing of reusables at the entrance of grocery stores and farmers markets. People with contaminated bags should be fined, their bags confiscated, and they should be required to carry their food purchases to their vehicle with their bare hands. That was all snark, of course.

    My city is considering a ban and I will be forwarding this info to one of the city council members who is opposing it. I have real concerns about the environmental impact of plastic bags, but oppose the ordinance on free market grounds.

  3. Constant Gardner says:

    This analysis relies on the assumption that since people at one time didn’t know to sanitize their bags, they will never know they should sanitize their bags.

  4. Dr. Klick refers to a percentage increase in illness. I would be interested in the number increase. A 100% increase from 2 to 4 cases is not quite the same public health issue as from 500 to 1000. Also, during the study time, were there any co-incident coliform bacteria events, such as food contamination at the source. This information is missing in this brief account. Not saying the research is unwarranted, just not sure I’d move to the conclusion that reusable bags are the problem. Not cleaning your bags is a problem, just not sure it is a public health crisis in the making.

  5. the most common “reusable” bags available are made of a paper/cloth felt that cannot be washed and will essentially dissolve when in contact with too much water. Everyone needs to use cotton canvas bags which can be machine washed, or vinyl bags which can be hand washed

  6. What about using bags that could be thrown in the washing machine?

  7. Susan Martin says:

    I have been using a huge reusable shopping bag I purchased from the Home Shopping Network. So many people have asked me where I got my bag. It is awesome. It has clips to clip to the side of your grocery cart while filling it. It is held closed by a strip of velcro and I have been using it for over 9 years…and it is still as strong and usable as always. I highly suggest all people provide their own grocery bags. If I ran a grocery store, I would not service a customer if they did not provide their own shopping bags. Safeway sells a really awesome shopping ‘bag’. It has a fold down hard bottom which makes loading it with heavy items very easy. All stores should have a nice supply of ‘Reusable Shopping Bags” ….the one problem is the ones they do offer are way too freaking small and you need to use like 5 of them for an average grocery shopping trip. They need to be much bigger and more sturdy.

  8. Perhaps stores should offer a liner for the re-usable bags made out of a safe, plastic. The could even put the store logo on the liner and handles.
    What if there was a requirement that stores offer either paper or plastic liners for the reusable bags as a safety measure?

  9. Brad Hill says:

    Is the cause of these bacteria investigated? Would using different bags for meat vs. vegetables be effective, as is done for food storage in restaurants?

  10. CrankyOtter says:

    I guess it comes down to “what problem are we trying to solve”?

    Use of environmental resources that are mined or not well sustained:
    Water vs. plastic bags.
    So what’s the economic/environmental cost of washing a reusable bag either by hand or in with a towel load in a washer? Washing things in hot water takes a LOT of natural resources. In low-water areas, it could be environmentally worse to have people washing their bags than to be using the plasic ones. If I’m throwing out heavy duty “reusable” bags, how is that better than throwing out lightweight bags?

    Reusing plastic bags vs. buying new
    I generate trash. I try not to generate a lot, but I use my plastic grocery bags as trash bags. If my town bans plastic bags, now I will have to BUY plastic bags. Maybe fewer bags, but making the store bags 2 mils thicker would cut down on the number I need and the nuber I can’t reuse.

    paper vs. plastic
    Add to that, we started with the plastic bags because paper bags were killing trees. Plastic comes from oil or agricultural products that use petroleum products to be grown.

    trips in car/hassle
    Also, it depends on how people shop. I shop at a store about every 2-3 weeks and refresh the produce at a farmer’s market once a week. Needless to say, my grocery runs are pretty large. Yes, I can *fit* all my cans of on-sale-soup into a giant IKEA bag, but I can’t necessarily *carry* all my groceries. Which means I need, on average, 3 reusable bags per shopping trip. If I were a better planner, I’d always know when I’m going shopping, but sometimes, I just stop on the way home from somewhere. So if store bags are banned, I have to have a bunch of reusable bags, I have to carry them in my car all the time, and I have to clean them regularly. What if I don’t want to spend my time washing out bags? What if shopping more often or only on tuesdsays doesn’t fit my schedule? If I can only get enough groceries to fit my bag on hand, then I have to drive to the store more often because no, I can’t carry my groceries home by hand.

    Some big freakouts environmentally for plastic bags are escaped trash and overgrown landfills. There are other solutions than banning useful things that help with this problem, but since I’ve already gone on and on, I’ll leave those as an exercise to the reader who has made it this far.

  11. Interesting to see how many cannot see the obvious health solution. Return to plastic and/or paper bags. If litter is a problem do more to enforce anti-litter laws and stop many responsible citizens lives more complicated for no good reason.

  12. How does this jibe with the national decline in infections coupled with the rise in reusable bags.

  13. Bag Slayer says:

    You know, they have a name for people who’ll do anything for money. You are one of them.

  14. sharpratio says:

    It is curious that governments are imposing a tax on a recyclable. The vast majority of us were recycling the plastic bags from the grocery stores before they were taxed. Now these individuals are bringing their own bags. What about the people who were tossing their plastic bags out the car window? Does anyone think that the small bag tax is causing these folks to bring their own bag to the store?

    Of course the major cost of the recycled bag is that it slows down the clerk. This loss of productivity results in higher grocery prices for everyone. The fact that it is difficult to see the fall in income makes the public think that it does not exist. If the fall in income were used instead to clean the environment, we would likely have a far cleaner world.


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