Are Plastic Bag Bans Making Us Sick?


plastic bag

Are the bacteria living in reusable grocery bags making us sick? A new study finds that plastic bag bans may be causing an uptick in emergency room visits and even deaths from common foodborne bacteria like coliform and E.coli.

The bag bans, which are usually justified on environmental grounds, are increasingly popular around the nation and usually incentivize shoppers to replace plastic with reusable canvas or nylon totes.

The study, by Jonathan Klick of University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Property and Environment Research Center and Joshua D. Wright of the George Mason University School of Law, found that in jurisdictions where plastic bags were banned saw ER visits increase by about one-fourth, with a similar increase in deaths compared with neighboring counties where the bags remained legal.

i am not a plastic bag

Basically people were schlepping leaky packages of meat and other foods in their canvas bags, then wadding to the bags somewhere for awhile, leaving bacteria to grow until the next trip, when they tossed celery or other foods likely to be eaten raw in the same bags.

Washing your bags reduces the risk, but let's be honest: who does that? 

To quote the study:

We find that the San Francisco County ban is associated with a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses. This implies an increase of 5.5 annual deaths for the county. 

In short: Plastic bag bans are killing Californians. You are next. Sorry.

For more on plastic bags, see Reason TV's video on L.A.'s plastic bag ban: 

NEXT: Feinstein Introduces Assault Gun Ban Bill

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  1. Those human deaths are a small price to pay for saving Gaia.

    1. Fist?

      Also, fried chicken?

      1. Hey everybody, look! WTF was first! Atta’ boy WTF. You are the King of the Thread. 😛

        Also, fried chicken.

      2. Leave me out of it. And I guess the Koch Brothers must have gotten into the plastic business for this article to appear at reason.

        1. Actually, they’re in the e. coli distribution business. This is pure publicity for those in the monocle-wearing know.

    2. If it is happening to Californians, is it really a loss?

    3. Personally, I see it as evolution in action. Too stupid to stop the spread of disease? Hey you! Out of the gene pool.

  2. Clearly the problem here isn’t bags: the problem is meat. Time to ban yucky, dangerous meat. After all it is just chunks of rotting corpse.

  3. +1 for proper use of alt-text. Bravo

  4. Sent that study to a highly educated, intelligent hippie-ish friend the other day and told her to wash her mud-colored hippie grocery sacks before she went to Burning Man this year. To be fair, I own such hippie sacks as well, but only because the grocery I frequented gave me a modest discount for doing so.

    Anyway, hippie was not happy with my suggestion, the research, or the researchers.

    1. Just what was your highly educated friend not happy about? The fact that the she can’t grasp a biological concept that even the most menial food service employee understands or that soap kills “innocent” microorganisms, a.k.a. “germs”?

      1. The fact that reality has a libertarian bias.

    2. Not happy that you gave her good advice? Well, you tried, but if she dies from some weird foodborne illness, you did your part to help prevent it.

    3. Facts don’t give a shit how you feel about them. Only Chuck Norris cares less about feelings than facts do.

      1. Chuck Norris is so badass, he can strangle you with a cordless phone!

        1. Chuck Norris went to the Virgin Islands, now, they are just the Islands

    4. I’ve used those as well, but when I do I STILL use plastic bags. I don’t normally put leaky meats in a cloth bag all on their lonesome.

  5. You’d think people who were so “ecologically aware” would possess even a modicum of microbiology knowledge, and wash the fucking bags.

    1. We’re talking about a group which has a huge bath-dodger population. They probably just spray patchouli in them and call it a day.

      1. AHA! That’s how Macrame Girl(s) got you in the sack…

        You are so pathetic, Brett. I’m not sure whether to laugh or weep.-)))

    2. I must admit, HM, this is one of the things I dislike about Euro-landia is the lack of plastic bags. Feh. I never like grocery shopping anyway, truth be told.

      The Gaia weirdos who push this crap probably revere pathogens as endangered species worthy of protection.

      1. In Thailand, when you buy a Coke, the vendor opens the glass bottle and pours it into a plastic bag filled with ice. And, 5 minutes later, after the drink is done, the plastic bag is thrown over the shoulder right into the mighty Chao Phraya River or the Gulf of Thailand.

        Still, the most horrific thing is that Thais serve ice cream in a hot dog bun.

        1. Still, the most horrific thing is that Thais serve ice cream in a hot dog bun.

          Mind. Blown.

            1. Those poor people. If ever there was proof cultural relativism is bunk, this it it.

        2. they do this in mexico also…..robbing me of the 3 peso deposit when i buy my next one…..

  6. Seattle’s next! Woo hoo!

    1. Between the food bacteria and the everpresent mold, Seattle is like America’s yeast infection.

      1. Pretty much. But does that make the Space Needle a penis?

        1. No, it means Puget Sound is a vagina.

          1. That makes the Space Needle an abnormally large clit.

            1. So…The Space Needle is in Chynna?

              1. I think that’s Vancouver.

      2. America has several strains of unkillable vermin, like Bush and Clinton.

        1. Curse that Alexander Fleming and his mouldy lunch! If only Mrs. Fleming had prepared something fresher that day…

    2. Monkey County was greedy enough that they didn’t ban them, but instead taxed them at 5 cents a pop. Cunts.

      Ikea and TJ’s were 2 stores that I knew of that were extending the carrot of per bag discounts, to entice cloth bags. That’s too subtle for the slimy old pols, who only see sticks to beat the populace with.

      1. What, they haven’t figured out how to beat people with carrots where you’re from? Lucky.

        1. nahh…just sodomizing them with the carrots…….

  7. Don’t worry; government will just set up no-questions-asked used reusable grocery bag exchanges to reduce the spread of infection among the food-eating public.

    1. No, no. Ban bags. Problem solved!

      1. But think of the opportunities for somber documentaries about the lack of funding for bag exchanges and how these outreach programs really need to be given more priority in budgeting. And the possibilities for new “careers” for struggling twenty-somethings who haven’t found the right match yet to meet at the exchange, and the romantic comedies that will tell their stories!

      2. No. BAN FOOD!

        1. Clearly, we need to BAN PEOPLE! Maybe Malthus and Erlich were on to something.

      3. But honestly, why haven’t we seen a PSA parody advising shoppers to leave behind their plastic AND reusable bags, and just carry loads of groceries in those capacious bags nature bestows on us all?our encircled arms?

        There’s comedy potential being wasted here.

        1. The Jack McBrayer sketch on Portlandia was that basic idea.

          1. Except he had just forgotten his cloth bag at the zero packaging grocery store and had to turn down the 3-for-1 watermelon deal.

    2. if they do a bag buy back, there will be some money made in most households….I have abou 25 plastic bags overstuffed w wadded up plastic bags

  8. Wait, the sole evidence here is a correlation between ER visits (with no particular reason specified) and jurisdictions with plastic bag bans? And this study was done by law professors? Color me skeptical.

    1. Not to mention that if something (like meat) leaked in one of the zillions of canvas bags we use for groceries (for a while every conference was using canvas bags as swag) we’d either wash it or throw it out (happened with one Trader Joe’s bag). This seems very unlikely to me.

    2. Those grant dollars aren’t going to spend themselves…

    3. Not “no particular reason specified.” From the paper:

      We examine the pattern of emergency room admissions related to bacterial intestinal infections, especially those related to E. coli around the implementation of the San Francisco County ban in October 2007. We find that ER admissions increase by at least one fourth relative to other California counties. Subsequent bans in other California municipalities resulted in similar increases. An examination of deaths related to intestinal infections shows a comparable increase. [emphasis added]

    4. It’s actually a pretty decent study if you read the whole thing. Obviously, you can’t do a straight cause/effect, but there are some really good bits.

      Also, not mentioned in the snippet here is that they built off of a 2011 study that looked at the bags in use themselves.

      “Williams et al (2011) randomly selected reusable grocery bags from consumers in grocery stores in Arizona and California. They examined the bags, finding coliform bacteria in 51 percent of the bags tested. Coliform bacteria were more prevalent in the California bags, especially those collected in the Los Angeles area. E. coli was found in 8 percent of the bags examined.”

  9. Funny anecdote apropos of nothing but involving plastic bags.

    Last summer my wife and I went on vacation up in Maine. One afternoon we went for a hike in a wooded scenic area. We stopped at a brook that had a small waterfall to snap some photos when I noticed a plastic bag laying on the ground. I turned and took a few shots of the bag and she asked why the hell I was taking pictures of a plastic bag. I told her it was because it’s so rare to see them in the wild and we usually only see the domesticated ones at the grocery store. Of course that got me the crazy idiot look and then we went on our way.

    1. Ah yes. My wife calls them people tracks…

    2. Of course that got me the crazy idiot look and then we went on our way.

      I know that look. I get it from my wife when I start screaming about socialism in inappropriate places (movie theaters, a church, Angel Stadium, etc.).

      1. My wife has unwired the part of her brain that deals with politics. When I start yelling about that stuff it just slides right past her.

        1. Try whispering. You might get her subliminally.

    3. Started out like a STEVE SMITH story.

      1. I too was worried there for a bit.

      2. Who is this Steve Smith? I’m thinking the son from the American Dad! series.

  10. We wash other kitchen tools that touches raw meat, it should be a reasonable assumption that one should do the same for resuable bags. Of course, an “easier” solution will be to become a vegetarian.

    1. No, an easier solution is to let us have the bags we want at the checkout line. Unintended consequences are unintended.

    2. Because no vegetables ever had E. coli on them.

      1. It’s not the vegetables’ fault. It’s becaue they were covered in manure.

    3. Right. Because lettuce never carries salmonella.

    4. Vegetables are fertilized with shit, dude. Nobody’s gonna eat that.

  11. I live in a plastic bag-ban city. The Smug factor is around 11 when you talk to people about it.

    I don’t actually like to bring up the ‘health’ issue (as delicious as it is, because it’s the same health nuts who push for bag bans) because that’s an issue for the voluntary user of the canvas bag.

    For me, I just pay the .05 per bag at the grocery store, because for those of you who don’t live in bag-ban cities, you don’t know the frustration of sitting in the grocery line while the checker tries to fit two weeks’ worth of groceries into the one or two canvas bags the subaru driver in line brought.

    The whole checkout process has slowed down noticably.

    What I’ve noticed in discussions about the ban is I have found something which really lights up the banners: I get the paper bags at .05 per and pay for them by no longer donating to charities (breast cancer) at the checkout line.

    That lights up people more than anything else. I’ve been called all maner of names, had my character impugned and even was told that “[I] wasn’t the kind of neighbor they want living in our city”.

    Show them the real unintended consequences of a bag ban, they get pissed real fast.

    1. ?and even was told that “[I] wasn’t the kind of neighbor they want living in our city”…

      I think that would cause me to grin widely and warm the cockles of my heart to a fine degree.

      1. I knew I had hit one out of the park when I got that one.

        But serially, think about it…

        At .05 a pop, I can pay for twenty (20) bags by foregoing my $1 donation to the breast cancer foundation. I’m actually making money from the bag ban.

        (However, I won’t go into the frustrating experiences I’m having with the paper bags and their propensity to tear– there is that).

        1. Easy. Double bag it.

          1. .10 cents? Now my withheld breast cancer donation doesn’t go as far.

            1. I thought you said you could get 20 bags in lieu of a $1 donation. If you need more than 10 bags each time you go shopping you either have a family or you’re under suspicion of being a food-hoarding prepper threat to society.

              1. It’s not that, it’s just that at 10 cents, now you’re cutting into my precious profits!

                These monocles aren’t free, you know.

                1. In San Jose, their bag ban levies a .10 tax on paper bags in order to keep up with the other ridiculously out of proportion taxes.

                  1. In San Jose, their bag ban levies a .10 tax on paper bags in order to keep up with the other ridiculously out of proportion taxes.

                    Luckily, I don’t know the way to San Jose.

          2. Remember that the next time you use condoms, db.-) I keed, I keed!

            1. Do you know how much condoms that fit me cost? I’ll take my chances and recommend you buy stock in latex plantations.

              1. Cut the thumb off a diswasher glove. Done and done.

              2. Do you know how much condoms that fit me cost? I’ll take my chances and recommend you buy stock in latex plantations.

                Well, whatever you do, make sure and wax. I have it on good authority that Epi’s choice of dapilatory is laser. I hear it’s like a tortoise shell down there.

            2. “Look, yes, I have banged hundreds of broads, internationally, but know this: I wrap my rascal TWO times ’cause I like it to be joyless and without sensation, as a way of punishing supermodels.”

              1. Right on cue. You never disappoint. Well, except those times you were with your Mom…

                And your sister.

        2. The bags at Whole Foods, Metropolitan, and QFC have all proven to be pretty tough, at least for me.

          1. I took you for a PCC man.

            1. Now that’s low.

              1. Fun fact: Drive by the PCC on California Avenue, see if you can spot all the subarus in one drive-by.

                1. Go to West Seattle? Never!

                  The one in Fremont luckily has no parking, but I could do that with the one on Aurora.

                2. Take your assault cannon street-sweeper death machine artifact of Satanic hellspawn (UZI). It’ll make the drive-by funner.

              2. Another fun story:

                Back in the days of yore when my wife was converting from vegetarian to carnivore (My influences were unstoppable), she (at first) decided she would only eat natural, free range meats. So we were wandering around the natural foods coop, looking for the free-range meats and we couldn’t find it. She began to grumble when I said, “Look, we’re talking farm raised, free-range stuff. You can’t guarantee that supply, if nothing died of natural causes this week, the store won’t have any stock”

                “It doesn’t work like that!”, she snapped back.

                1. Thank you, Paul. I’ll be billing you for the hernia I just got from laughing so hard.

                  1. I wasn’t married very long.

                    1. Be sure to remember that when you count your blessings.

        3. Plastic works better.

          Get a huge, obnoxiously thick plastic bag from a gun store and shop. Watch hilarity ensue.

          1. *smile broadening across my face*

            1. Just make sure the bag has a huge-ass graphic of a gun.

              1. Instead of “Big Brown Bag” it can read “Big Black Rifle”

        4. If you’re gonna pay for bags, why not just order a carton of plastic grocery bags for around thirty bucks? You get between 500 and 1000 bags AND you get to piss of the ecotards in the bargain.

          I’m gonna have tp try this. Where are these bans?

    2. I do the same thing, Paul. 5 cents? It’s not even like that’s money, more like some laughable denomination made up for a children’s game.

      Luckily, I don’t tend to talk to people who would actually get pissed about me buying the bags.

      1. I do the same thing, Paul. 5 cents? It’s not even like that’s money, more like some laughable denomination made up for a children’s game.

        It is a children’s game…

        Luckily, I don’t tend to talk to people who would actually get pissed about me buying the bags.

        I don’t either, I mean, not directly. I do post comments on the Seattle Times articles once in a while. You could call it trolling, except it’s true, I no longer donate to any charity at the checkstand because of the ban. So, that may not count as trolling.

    3. Tell them you don’t give two shits about who they want to be living in their city. Busybody cunts.

      1. To the one guy who wrote that back to me, my response was,

        “But we are living in your towns, in your neighborhoods, walking amongst you, right now…”

        1. Win. +100.

          You should have added “your furniture looks great from the house across the street. Mmmmm.”

        2. That sounds remarkably like the tag line to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Coincidence?

        3. Seattle Times commenters are an easy bunch. Very low sense of humor– it’s a snark-free zone.

          When I post there, I feel like Seth Green playing the Amish guy in Sex Drive

          “I miss sarcasm, it’s really lost on my people…”

  12. This news is hilarious to me, especially since places like San Francisco are leading the country in plastic bag bans. But let’s be careful to not confuse correlation with causation. The study findings certainly seem to make sense, though.

  13. Plastic bags can be reused too. I save all mine, then my wife fills them with cat shit. Without bags from the store, we would be buying more garbage bags which are much more wasteful and resource intensive than plastic grocery bags.

    1. Why don’t you just tell her that all that cat shit will never be worth anything and just throw them away.

    2. “I save all mine, then my wife fills them with cat shit.”

      What an odd hobby.

    3. This is what we do with our plastic bags too. We have about 5 small wastebaskets around the house that they get put in as well as the litter box.

      1. For just a moment I thought you refer to your cats as wastebaskets. Then I relished the thought of putting them inside plastic bags.

  14. Nonbiodegradable styrofoam and plastic bags? Absolutely. Daily.

    Gaia can fuck off.

    1. This is how I live my life too and it is so lovely I must say.

      I look forward to functional and affordable green technology some day, but today ain’t that day.

      1. You know the funny thing? I can reuse old, nonbiodegradable bags so many times, the writing and artwork on them fade by the time I notice a hole, or the handles wear out.

        There’s a reason they exist — they work. Fuck off, regulators.

      2. As though technology will freeze and the laws of economics will vanish forever due to a bunch of plastic bags buried in a giant heap of trash.

        I brought an entire table of dogooders to stunned silence a few weeks back when I suggested that we should stop recycling or banning said bags because future generations of humans would be better able and incentivized to do so.

        I might as well have leapt onto the middle of the table, dropped trou, and taken a shit in the communal guacamole.

  15. Oh, win on the alt-text/photo combo on pic #1.

  16. Plastic bag bans are one lazy step up from total coach slacktivism. It alleviates some of the guilt from suburban moms who drove to the store in an SUV.

    “But I’m not a polluter. Look, I don’t use plastic bags!”

    Plastic bags take up basically no space in the landfill. And if the ban is to help stop bags from becoming litter and flying around everywhere, just enforce your littering laws.

  17. What did Douglas Adams say about the results of getting rid of phone cleaners?

    Also, the UN causes cholera – black people suffer.

    1. I remember that, and I also remember how it led to riots against the South Asian U.N. troops who were accused of causing the outbreak.

      Of course, the U.N. couldn’t afford to provide the Haitian people with these, Mr. U.N. Eurocrat needs his new Land Rover and penthouse apartment. Who do you think he is?

      1. That’s amazing. Been looking for a Polar Pure replacement for a while, and that’s as good as anything I’ve seen.

  18. You all need to see the latest bag ban bill being brought before the CA Legislature. Not only does it ban plastic bags, but it bans paper as well 18 months later.

    Let that soak in: California may ban paper bags for the environment.

    I live in a fucked-up state.

    1. Jesus Christ, dude. MOVE TO ALASKA.

    2. Markets should just start calling the bags free “XXL condoms” and claim it’s in honor of Sandra Fluk.

      1. That would be a great pornstar name (or alias, a la the Sarah Palin videos): Sandra Fuck.

  19. My wife was disgusted by the fact that the reusable bags Kroger sold weren’t really washable, so we went to Walmart, got some canvas and a roll of woven nylon strap, and she made her own. We get looked at like we’re hippie superstars when we remember to take them to the grocery store, which is rarely.

  20. We have to do something! We need to get these bags of war and pestilence of the streets!

    1. Won’t someone please think of the children?

  21. Grocery stores could sell disposable plastic liners for the canvas bags, problem solved.

    1. Or maybe, you know, we could get rid of the ban. Liberty much?

  22. So the problem isn’t in the bags it is in people too lazy/stupid to wash a container that previously held raw meat. Makes you wonder what the cutting boards and counter tops in their house look like.

    1. It’s not just raw meat. Salmonella is very happy in leafy greens, which seem quite popular with the hairy-underarmed xx crowd.

  23. I have reusable bags for Trader Joe’s. Once, I offended a TJ’s clerk who thanked me for saving the planet by telling him I didn’t want those paper bags cluttering up my kitchen.

    Otherwise, I take the plastic grocery bags which are the best for cat litter. Notice how doggie poop bags are manufactured and sold as such but no one makes cat litter box bags? That’s ’cause grocery bags are ideal for the purpose. The clerks at Whole Foods sometimes exhort me to carry reusable bags in the trunk of my car. I just smile. Their bags are extra-good for litter because they are strong plastic and don’t require doubling.

    Also, +2 for the alt-text because both are hilarious.

    1. That might be the only time in history that a TJ’s clerk wasn’t an absurdly pleasant person. In fact, I don’t think their clerks are capable of being offended. Maybe yours was just perplexed.

  24. As someone currently employed in the grocery bagging industry (starving student ftw), the reusable bags are the WORST. Not only are they impossible to bag with (making YOU have to wait longer), but people leave their rotting food items inside them… One woman even had bags covered in cat piss…

    Please, for the sake of Mother Earth and humanity, always ask for paper. They’re the easiest for us (therefore the fastest for you), and also the most environmentally friendly since they’re made from a renewable resource, instead of petrochemicals like the reusuables.

    1. As someone currently employed in the grocery bagging industry (starving student ftw), the reusable bags are the WORST. Not only are they impossible to bag with (making YOU have to wait longer)

      I’m glad to hear first-hand industry ‘insider’ evidence at this. I’ve definitely noticed a slowdown in the checkout process.

      It’s fucking annoying.

      Checker: Do you want me to try to fit that in your bags?

      Customer in hemp dress: Uhh, yeah, well, wait… I dunno, maybe we can put it in the first one if we take everything out of that one and try to fit it into that one… no wait…

  25. The author’s logic is flawed, if not outright nonsensical. Bans on plastic bags are not causing food-borne illnesses; the ignorance and poor actions of individual consumers are. The article even says so when it explains how bacteria can spread in unwashed/unsanitary bags. It’s not the law that’s making people sick. It’s stupid people making themselves sick by practicing poor hygiene and allowing cross-contamination.

    I live in a city with a ban on plastic bags, and neither I nor anyone I know has ever gotten a food-borne illness due to the ban. Blaming a plastic-bag ban for food poisoning is like blaming a speed limit when someone strangles himself with his own seat-belt. Laws or no laws, each citizen is responsible for his or her own safety and well-being. I thought we as libertarians accepted that fact…

    1. Do you even liberty, bro?

    2. As I stated above, I actually agree. The continuous harping on health is not the issue with plastic bag bans, it’s the ban that’s the problem with the ban.

    3. Woosh, pt. 2

  26. “incentivize”??? come on???

  27. The two words progressives never learn: unintended consequences.

    1. population decrease is always a bonus effect for progressive policy

  28. That makes a lot of sense when you think about it.


  29. I’d love to know how much the Koch Brothers and the American Chemistry Council contribute to Reason. When did you? become shills for the plastics industry?

  30. We need a ban on assault bags and a 10 apple capacity limit.


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