California lifts ban on plastic bags amid virus concerns

A man uses a plastic bag as a mask amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Srinagar Apr 7, 2020. REUTERS
Retailers in California can once again hand out free single-use plastic bags under an executive order announced Thursday by Gov. Gavin Newsom, the latest turn away from reusable bags amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The order permits stores to provide customers with disposable plastic bags for the next 60 days. “It is critical to protect the public health and safety and minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure for workers engaged in essential activities, such as those handling reusable grocery bags,” it states.

The suspension of the ban was vigorously championed by the California Retailers Association and the California Grocers Association, which have asserted that reusable bags put supermarket employees at risk of being infected with the coronavirus.

Since California’s plastic bag ban passed in 2016, providing shoppers with thin, single-use plastic bags has been prohibited in the state. If shoppers fail to bring their own bag, stores have been required to charge them at least 10 cents for a paper or reusable bag.

In a letter to Newsom last month, the associations requested a suspension of the plastic bag ban. “This is a laudatory environmental policy, but it is simply not appropriate to expect our employees to handle and load customers’ used grocery bags at this time,” the groups wrote.

Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, said he believed that there was a superior alternative to suspending the ban: encouraging customers to bag their own groceries. That approach, he noted, has been endorsed by the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

So long as customers do this, “reusable bags are perfectly safe, and pose zero threat to store employees and other customers,” he said in an email. He said he believed that while retailers had good intentions, they were inflicting a “costly and unnecessary wound” on themselves as well as the environment by discouraging reusable bags and agreeing to give out plastic bags at no cost.

California is only one of several states facing concerns that reusable bags may help spread the virus. In March, Gov. Janet Mills of Maine postponed the state’s ban on single-use plastic bags, which was supposed to go into effect this month, to next January. Oregon and New York have also delayed statewide bag bans.


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