While plastic bag bans in some parts of the country have been rolled back during the pandemic, Vermont’s single-use bag prohibition will still go into effect on July 1.
However, fears that reusable bags can act as potential vectors for the coronavirus, which state officials say appear to be largely unfounded, are complicating the transition away from disposable bags.
Last year, lawmakers passed a bill prohibiting grocers, retailers and restaurants from handing out plastic bags starting this July. (Plastic bags used for dry cleaning, flowers, packaging loose produce and other food items within stores will still be allowed.)
Grocery stores, which have been among the few businesses to stay open for in-person shopping throughout the pandemic, have had to pivot in an effort to keep customers and staff safe, including everything from disinfecting carts to redirecting customers with one-way-only aisles.
While a hot grocery store topic has been whether or not particular stores require masks, there have also been differences in how stores are dealing with customers who want to bring in their own bags.
The Morrisville Food Co-op is among the stores asking customers to not bring in their own bags for the time being.
Taylor Evans, general manager, said the co-op “never was a plastic bag” store, so next month’s ban won’t affect it. For now, customers are taking home their groceries in paper bags or repurposed cardboard boxes from vendors.
The reusable bag ban has gotten some pushback from customers, Evans added.
Reusing bags has been “one of the mainstays of a co-op, in terms of local and reusing things,” she said, adding that the next step for stores like hers could be letting customers use reusable bags if they bag their own groceries.
That’s the approach Shaw’s Supermarkets has taken as part of its broader customer and worker protection strategy, according to spokeswoman Teresa Edington. That strategy does not include requiring customers to wear masks at all stores while shopping, although they are asked to adhere to any CDC and state guidelines.
Another challenge for some stores has been how to navigate customers bringing in their own containers for bulk items like granola and rice. Burlington’s City Market had at first banned customers from bringing in their own container, but now has recently decided to allow customers to bring in certain kinds of them.
Early in the pandemic, the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association called on the governor and lawmakers to postpone the plastic bag ban until January. President Erin Sigrist stressed that the association was not looking to do away with the ban, but to reduce potential coronavirus exposure for workers from reusable bags, and to give stores some leeway to use up extra plastic bags they haven’t used during the pandemic.
Grocers that have temporarily banned reusable bags are still talking with environmental officials about how the plastic bag ban will work, especially since many have faced delays in paper bag shipments, said Sigrist.
“There’s a supply issue that we’re trying to address, in addition to banning plastic bags, so it’s a complex situation,” she said. “It’s not as simple as just saying OK we’re going to close that door on July, 1 and everything’s going to work perfectly.”
The plastics industry has taken the opportunity to promote disposable bags as a safer alternative to reusables, and to urge overturning the bag ban. Some municipalities and states have done so, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu temporarily banned reusable bags.
While a few studies, including an oft-pointed to industry-funded one, have shown that certain bacteria and viruses can live on reusable bags, public health experts say the main mode of transmission for the coronavirus is person-to-person contact.
“The studies don’t really provide evidence that there’s any risk to public health from coronavirus due to the use of reusable bags,” said Josh Kelly, materials management section chief at the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. His division has made that assessment in consultation with Vermont health officials.
So, it’s advising businesses not to tell customers they’re prohibited from using reusable bags. Kelly says that will lead to more plastic bag use and cause “an unnecessary environmental threat.”
People should regularly wash their reusable bags, Kelly added.
Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, who chairs the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee and sponsored the plastics ban bill, said the intent of the bag ban was to “transition from single use to reusables,” not from plastic to paper.
He stressed while he wants grocery store workers to be as safe as possible, he does not think banning reusable bags is the best way to do that. Bray pointed out that not all stores require people to wear masks, as recommended by the Vermont Department of Health.
“So if (respiratory droplets are) the major threat to the health and well-being of your employees, don’t say we’re going to prohibit reusable bags, but let people walk around without masks,” he said. “That makes no scientific sense in terms of protecting the health and welfare of employees, which we support 100 percent.”