As you probably now know, the Los Angeles City Council recently voted overwhelmingly (13-1, with Council Member Bernard Parks casting the only no vote) to ban the distribution of plastic bags by food markets. The Council may also want to ensure that there is a substantial educational campaign to go along with the ban.
The proposed substitute for plasticis the reusable shopping bag. However, the reusable bag carries the risk of contamination; as recently discussed in this column, about half a dozen girl scouts got sick while eating food carried in a reusable bag which had become contaminated from previous food stuffs carried in the bag.
A study entitled “Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags”, done by authors from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, randomly
tested 84 reusable bags used by shoppers in Tucson, Los Angeles and San Francisco. More than half of the bags were contaminated with bacteria, including among other things E.coli.
The study was funded by the American Chemistry Council, which intuitively would seem to have a vested interest in promoting the use of plastic. Nonetheless, when coupled with anecdotal reports of illness spread by unwashed reusable bags and the common-sense conclusion that unwashed bags can carry bacteria from previous foods carried in the bags, the study cannot be dismissed outright on the grounds of bias. The study can be found at http://uanews.org/pdfs/GerbaWilliamsSinclair_BagContamination.pdf.
So it would seem that, if jurisdictions want to ban plastic, such jurisdictions need to ensure they have
an effective educational campaign to inform shoppers about the steps needed to clean the bags in between use. Such need may seem obvious to many of us. But don’t forget that the government has been crusading against smoking since 1964 and millions of people still smoke. It cannot be assumed, therefore, that shoppers automatically are going to get the message.
At least the threat of bacterial-caused disease from unwashed reusable bags has a simple solution—i.e., cleaning. More difficult is how to remedy any effect on jobs from the ban.
As the LA Times has reported in its May 23, 2011 blog, plastic-bag company employees, led by the American Progressive Bag Alliance, showed up before the City Council wearing “Don’t Kill My Job” t-shirts. The Alliance argues that the ban threatens the jobs of 2,000 workers in a State already reeling from 10.9% unemployment and a good deal more underemployment. If timing is everything, opponents suggest, this is not the time further to threaten employment.
Of course, proponents of the ban may counter that the loss of plastic-bag jobs will be made up by jobs created from increased demand for the reusables. Whether this is true or not will take additional time and study to figure out. In any event, since the “pro-plastic bag” advocates indicate they are contemplating litigation over the ban, the debate may not be over but rather just barely have begun.
From my column, "Legal News You Can Use", published in the Valley News Group (San Fernando Valley California) newspapers.