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Study links plastic bag ban with increase in food-related deaths

Date

Hamish Boland-Rudder, Christopher Knaus

Unwashed 'green bags' have been linked to food poisoning by studies overseas.

Unwashed 'green bags' have been linked to food poisoning by studies overseas. Photo: Wayne Taylor

Canberra’s plastic bag ban may be aimed at saving the environment, but one research paper out of the US suggests banning plastic bags in favour of reusable grocery bags could actually kill humans.

Titled Grocery Bag Bans and Foodborne Illness, the paper incorporates earlier research done into the instances of harmful bacteria, particularly E. coli, found in reusable shopping bags.

But the ACT government insists it was aware of the health risks linked to the banning of plastic bags, and ensured Canberrans were not put at any greater risk.

The research paper, dated November 2012, and published online in January by the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Institute for Law and Economics, studied a connection between plastic bag bans in Californian counties and increases in food-related illnesses and death.

One study conducted in California and Arizona found most shoppers did not use separate bags for meat and vegetables, did not wash reusable grocery bags, and often stored them in car boots, resulting in the growth of bacteria.

“If individuals fail to clean their reusable bags, these bacteria may lead to contamination of the food transported in the bags. Such contamination has the potential to lead to health problems and even death,” the paper states.

Focussing on a plastic bag ban introduced in San Francisco in 2007, the paper then compares the instances of emergency hospital admissions and deaths for food-related illness across counties with and without plastic bag bans, as well as across time periods before and after bans are introduced.

“We find that both deaths and ER visits spiked as soon as the ban went into effect,” the paper concludes.

“Relative to other counties, deaths in San Francisco increase by almost 50 per cent, and ER visits increase by a comparable amount. Subsequent bans by other cities in California appear to be associated with similar effects.”

The paper suggests washing reusable grocery bags could be the solution to health concerns, but could then have adverse environmental effects through increased use of water, detergent, and energy – in essence, nullifying the environmental benefits offered by banning plastic bags.

A spokesman for the ACT Environment and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell said the government was aware of possible contamination, and chose made small plastic barrier bags - the bags customers tear from rolls in supermarkets - exempt from the territory's ban to reduce the risk.

‘‘The ACT government paid close attention to health and safety issues when implementing a ban on plastic bags in the territory,’’ the spokesman said.

‘‘This is why the ban in the ACT does not include plastic barrier bags (also known as bag-on-a-roll) used for fruit, vegetable, meat and seafood products,’’ he said.

The ACT’s plastic bag ban came into effect in November 2011. A recent survey conducted by the ACT government as part of an interim review of the policy showed 70 per cent of Canberrans want the ban to continue, while Greens minister Shane Rattenbury said the ban should be tightened to ensure all bags used in the capital are compostable.

The Canberra Liberals promised to overturn the bag ban if elected.

The research was undertaken by Pennsylvania Law School professor Jonathan Klick and George Mason University School of Law professor Joshua Wright, both of whom hold doctorates in economics.

38 comments

  • Simple solution - just require the plastic bags at supermarkets to be fully biodegradable or compostable.

    Commenter
    snaddle
    Date and time
    February 08, 2013, 2:37PM
    • +1,
      I agree 100%..
      I work regularly with Bio-Compatibitiy assessments with the FDA & re-usable "green" alternatives are just not safe.
      They are a great moral/ ethics boost for the pretend greenies, but in real terms they are counterproductive.
      ( N.B: I''m not having a stab at greenies!
      In fact I consider myself as being very much enviro aware.
      I just hate to read stories about people that drive around in their big SUV and think they are being supportive of the environment by prancing around a supermarket with a few green re-uasable bags!!))
      Make it law that all plastic bags should be bio-degradable.
      Simple.
      In fact, ask the guys that prance around with their re-useable bags
      "what do you use for rubbish at home?"
      Probably extra bags that have been introduced into the system?
      Simple Solution
      Make all bags biodegradable and re-use bags for rubbish collection.

      Commenter
      eeGoh
      Date and time
      February 09, 2013, 12:02AM
  • As if this study was not to be expected... some foods must be wrapped and taken home in disposable plastic bags - most importantly raw chicken and pork - all meats really. Don't argue they are wrapped in plastic as part of point of sale - they are batch wrapped and contaminants - particularly salmonella are on both inside and outside of display packaging even if it isn't leaking.
    Most take home bags we use now are fabric so washing is of little use
    I support not having plastic bags littering the countryside - just mandate they have to be those that degrade in sunlight.
    Oh and my car is full of assorted bags but I still have to buy plastic bags to use. So my use is actually more.... Good idea - poor implementation.

    Commenter
    The Hermit
    Date and time
    February 08, 2013, 2:48PM
    • So, let me see if I get it straight.

      A US University for Law and Economics publishes an article by one of their own students about health. At the moment I can't even see whether this paper has undergone peer review. And that is newsworthy here in Australia because?

      > The Canberra Liberals promised to overturn the bag ban if elected.

      Oh, right.

      Commenter
      TheCarl
      Date and time
      February 08, 2013, 2:58PM
      • Forget or be too lazy to wash your reusable bag and you might - yes, might - get sick. Well "d'uh".

        As for the downside, who washes their bags separately from the rest of the coloured laundry?

        What I want to know is what do two ECONOMISTS know about researching biological contaminants? Also, I notice there is no mention of who funded this research.

        Commenter
        YS
        Date and time
        February 08, 2013, 2:58PM
        • Most professional economists are experts in econometrics and statistics. If you read the article, they measured the change in food poisoning incidences before and after plastic bags are banned.

          Commenter
          Aussie Capitalist
          Location
          Perth
          Date and time
          February 09, 2013, 11:52AM
      • Mr Rattenbury's response is now required. It will be illuminating.

        I'm concern even more now given the expected return of the Sydney Gasto in our winter that this will act as a vector.

        Commenter
        Outraged of Palmerston
        Date and time
        February 08, 2013, 3:20PM
        • Our family has just been through Norovirus - one at a time. The infection source was the family member in hospital.

          The spread I can assure you was not shopping bags - and it would be highly unlikely to be transmitted by this method.

          I don't understand this - if you buy any deli meats or seafood in any supermarket I have been to they wrap it in plastic and then in paper.

          If I buy fruit or vegetables I always put them in seperate bags for each type so that they are weighed in their bag and not mixed.

          I wash our shopping bags, mind you they rarely get re-used for shopping as they get left at home or used for other purposes.

          Anyone remeber there was a time before plastic bags? A time when people had their own bags for shopping? Or baskets on their bike?

          Seriously blaming reusable bags for a lack of hygene sense is stupid.

          Commenter
          richardw
          Date and time
          February 09, 2013, 9:30PM
      • It is regrettable that people are not treating re-usable bags hygienically but that does not mean we should continue to use plastic bags, compostable or not. I am not a fan of the re-usable bag made out of synthetic materials since these are frequently re-used to hold rubbish put in garbage bins or goods donated to op shops. The solution is to use bags made of cotton - or preferably hemp - that are sturdy, obviously and easily washable and very durable. We have been using our homemade hemp bags for at least a decade. They are washed with the towels once a week or more frequently if soiled.

        For holding fruit and vegetables at markets or supermarkets, simple net or see through nylon drawstring bags can be used. They weigh almost nothing, are washable and durable.

        The problem is not with the re-usable bags but the treatment and careless disposal of them. It's probably better for a few people to be re-educated through contracting an illness than for the rest of us to have to put up with such antisocial and destructive littering behaviour. It is likely that people who don't wash the bags they use for their food don't wash their hands too often, either!

        Commenter
        Use washable fabric bags
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        February 08, 2013, 3:45PM
        • And of course the hemp bags have the added bonus of having something on hand to ease the stress of modern shopping!!

          Commenter
          The Redman
          Date and time
          February 08, 2013, 5:04PM

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