It's in the bag

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Debate > Paper, plastic or cloth all have downsides

By Tris DeRoma

Believe it or not, there’s a real debate raging out there on whether the plastic bags at the local grocery store are better than the average, so-called environmentally-friendly totes used to haul home the family groceries.


On one side, environmentalists say the bags use up and ultimately waste oil, in the way they are made, as well the costs in fossil fuel it takes to supply a store with them. They also say they become litter all too easily; that eventually clogs up waterways and puts additional trash in landfills.

In California, the battleground is white-hot, with the plastics industry skirmishing with the environmental movement, city by city, to fight the popular trend of banning plastic bags. So far, San Francisco and Oakland have instituted plastic bag bans, and the movement to do so is spreading to New Mexico. On the website Change.org, there is a popular petition up, calling for the state government to issue a statewide ban, and it already has 3,621 supporters.

But hold on, plastic bag proponents have cited studies where those reusable cloth totes can be pretty bad. If you use the totes, you may be surprised at what you find — and after carrying around your veggies and meat for a couple of months — perhaps disgusted. One worker at a store in Los Alamos is also disgusted. He prefers to keep his name and the store he works at anonymous for fear of reprisal.

“They are absolutely disgusting,” he said, adding that whenever he sees them, he tries to wipe down the checkout stand whenever possible. “People pack their meats and vegetables in them; and of course they leak, so there’s always the risk for cross-contamination,” he said.

He also said he’s seen bags come in with cat and dog hair all over them and wonders if the customers even know what they are carrying around.

Some studies from the front lines of the debate report increases in cases of the flu and food poisoning, mainly from noroviruses originating from those innocent looking totes.

And there are studies that seem to back that up. Remember that ban San Francisco instituted? A joint study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and George Mason University reported that there was an increase in patients visiting emergency rooms in San Francisco due to e. coli infection. The study also cited an increase in instances in salmonella and other types of infections.

The solution would seem simple enough; cleanliness, according to TIm Morrison, a front end manager of the Los Alamos Co-op. His store does not use plastic bags, only paper. They also sell three different types of totes, he said.

“I’ve seen a couple news stories on the danger of using reusable bags, too,” he said. “It comes down to basic sanitation, just like washing the dishes. Most of the bags you can toss into the washing machine,” he said.

Studies have pointed out that if you want to use totes, you’re better off following Morrison’s advice.

At least one study points out that regular washing, even if it’s just with soap and water, it will remove 95 to 98 percent of the bacteria and germs that tend to accumulate on them. If nothing else, you will make some checkout clerks happy.