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Plastics-Industry's Scaremongering by Fanning Needless Worries over the Cleanliness of Reusable Bags

Reusable bags teeming with microbes, survey says
Study commissioned by plastics-industry body finds widespread contamination in sample of Toronto shoppers' bags

By Martin Mittelstaedt
Globe and Mail Update, Wednesday, May. 20, 2009 10:55PM EDT

Environmentally friendly reusable grocery bags have a downside: They can be teeming with bacteria, mould and yeast.

That's the conclusion of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, an association representing plastic-bag makers. The group said it undertook a study on microbes in reusable bags because it was worried about “public health and safety,” said Cathy Cirko, a council vice-president. But critics see the survey as the self-serving response of an industry whose product is under siege.

The study purports to be the first in North America on the hygienic properties of the much-ballyhooed replacements for the single-use, throwaway plastic bags that have been vilified as a menace by many environmental organizations and increasingly subjected to municipal restrictions.

It was conducted on 25 reusable bags taken from shoppers in downtown Toronto who were given a new bag in return for handing over the used one they owned.

Most of the bags were less than a year old, had never been washed, and looked clean. But 64 per cent had some microbial contamination, including three that had traces of coliform, an intestinal bacteria. Nearly 30 per cent had bacterial counts above safe drinking-water levels.

A critic of the industry accused it of scaremongering, saying the group is trying to protect its dwindling market share and deflect public hostility to its product by fanning needless worries over the cleanliness of reusable bags.

Heather Marshall, spokesperson for the Toronto Environmental Alliance, said she finds it difficult to believe the industry carried out the study for public-safety reasons. “I definitely think that this is their last, final, desperate attempt to scare people off of reusable bags,” she said.

No E. coli or salmonella, two of the most dangerous food-borne bacteria, were found in any of the bags.

Nonetheless, the finding that the bags can provide a habitat for microbes is likely to raise awareness that more care needs to be taken with reusable bags than with throwaway ones. It suggests that if people really want to be green and safe, they should keep bags clean, dry them if they get wet, and wash them if they become soiled, something few people realize they should do. And if bags get really dirty, they should probably be thrown out.

There are currently no government safety protocols for multi-use bags.

Reusable bags are in the spotlight because they've emerged as the only practical replacement for the estimated six billion plastic bags used each year in Canada.

Many of the single-use bags have ended up as litter, floating in waterways and clogging municipal landfills, leading to efforts to minimize their use. Toronto retailers, for instance, will have to start charging customers five cents for throwaway plastic bags under a municipal rule that comes into force next month. Many major retailers, particularly in Ontario and Quebec, have already begun instituting the nickel-a-bag charge for customers who don't bring their own bags and need one.

Dr. Richard Summerbell, a microbiologist hired by the council to review the findings, said he is worried that shoppers may unwittingly contaminate their bags, particularly when they use them to carry meat.

He said it would be “very smart” for shoppers to double-bag meat in a plastic bag, “especially if it's in that sort of shrink-wrap-type plastic where you quite often … see a bit of red meat juice running out the bottom.” A bag exposed to fluids from raw meat, he said, could pose the same risk of spreading contamination to other foods as, for example, a cutting board that had been similarly contaminated.

There are an estimated 13 million cases of food poisoning each year in Canada, according to the study. Dr. Summerbell said he doesn't know if any have been caused by contamination of food through reusable bags, but he said it is such a new idea that food-safety inspectors haven't been on the lookout for it.

As published at: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/technology/reusable-bags-teeming-wit...

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