The decision by the City of Toronto to ban the distribution of plastic bags may be considered by some to be a victory and others a tragedy. However, for Toronto Public Health, this move may end up being a nightmare. While there is no doubt that the reduction of plastic waste will further minimize the human impact on the environment, the City of Toronto should have considered how germs, and more importantly germophobia, will play a role in the future.
The transmission of infectious diseases from non-disposable bags has been hotly debated since the trend to ban the use of plastic shopping bags began in San Francisco back in 2008. There is no doubt that germs get into bags from various sources, particularly grocery items including vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and fish. The risk of infection from these sources is quite low, and healthy individuals have little to fear. But thanks in part to the plastics industry and an unfortunate virus outbreak, the practice of reuse has been vilified.
In 2008, the same year as the San Francisco ban, a study was conducted by Guelph Chemical Laboratories, Ltd, on the microbiological quality of reusable shopping bags and found that "reusable grocery bags can become an active microbial habitat and a breeding ground for bacteria, yeast, mold and coliforms."
Two years later, Dr. Chuck Gerba, a noted American germ hunter, found potentially disease-causing bacteria, such as E. coli in unwashed bags, which represented about 97 per cent of all the ones collected. But perhaps the most damning evidence had nothing to do with the plastics industry. A scientific report published last month identified reusable bags as the source of a norovirus outbreak that felled a girls' soccer team and its chaperones with the nasty symptoms of diarrhea, vomiting and overall malaise.
These studies all demonstrate the risk of infection but they also all offered a potential solution to the problem. The key to safe reusable bags is regular washing with hot water and soap. Not only will the practice remove and/or kill bacteria, fungi and viruses, but it will also remove any organic material that could be left around for bacteria to grow on. A simple soak, wash, rinse and dry are all that is needed to ensure safety for the present and also into the future.
Yet despite the great advice offered, the focus of these studies, and the coverage of them, has been on the fact that reusable bags are germy and will make you sick. This unfortunate reality has stolen the opportunity to educate the public on how to keep reusable shopping bags safe. To put it more succinctly, one of the conclusions in the study by Dr. Gerba stated:
"Thus, a sudden or significant increase in use of reusable bags without a major public education campaign on how to reduce cross-contamination would create the risk of significant adverse public health impact."
Perhaps Toronto City Council should have read that statement before they made the historic vote.
With the ban in place, the difficult job of educating Torontonians on the safe use and re-use of grocery bags falls squarely on Toronto Public Health. The next six months will most likely be spent trying to develop posters to place in grocery stores, pamphlets to take home and advertising campaigns with slogans that point out the need and ease of being safe. All the while the department will be fighting an expected onslaught of negative campaigning from plastic and chemistry-based companies whose intent will be, as shown previously, to vilify reusable grocery bags and scare the public.
This bleak future demonstrates once again the fact that educating the public is significantly harder than instilling fear. Combatting germophobia is not an easy process, but it must be done if only to keep the public informed and calm. When it comes to Toronto, there's no better example of success. The city has lived through SARS, a pandemic and even C. difficile.
It will be just fine dealing with germy shopping bags.