Medical Experts Commend Massachusetts For Switching Back To Single-Use Plastic Bags

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So-called single-use paper and plastic bags are not only back in every Massachusetts community, but they are also the only option at grocery stores.

To try to slow the spread of coronavirus, earlier this week Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker temporarily banned the use of reusable shopping bags. He also mandated that the single-use bags be available to consumers free of charge.

According to Sierra Club, as of February 2020, 139 of Massachusetts’s 351 cities and towns had local regulations restricting thin-film plastic bags — either banning them or charging consumers for each bag to discourage use. More than 60 percent of the state lives in those communities, which include major cities like Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, and Cambridge, among others.

While some would argue that single-use plastics are wasteful and bad for the environment, in part because they are made from petrochemicals, epidemiologists tell New Boston Post that Baker made the right move, given the circumstances.

Dr. Brian Labus, a communicable diseases expert, says relying on single-use paper and plastic bags probably won’t do much, but it’s something.

“While packaging materials aren’t a major source of transmission of the virus, we are trying to avoid having multiple people handling the same objects,” said Labus, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, in an email message. “Something that you have been carrying around all day or keeping in your house where there are sick individuals could serve as a potential way to spread the virus to others. 

“Temporarily switching to single-use paper and plastic bags can play a role in stopping the spread of coronavirus,” he added. “The people at greatest risk are going to be the people working in stores that would have to handle the reusable bags from multiple customers. If we can do something simple to protect them, no matter how small, it is worth it.”

Dr. William Petri, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Virginia’s School of Medicine, supports Baker’s decision.

Petri told New Boston Post that temporarily banning an assortment of reusable items — including grocery bags, coffee cups, and water bottles — would be helpful.

“Most of the transmission seems to happen through fomites, which just means contaminated surfaces,” Petri said in a telephone interview. “Someone with COVID-19 could be completely without symptoms, touch a surface or a grocery bag. If someone else touches that bag or surface, it becomes contaminated. It does make good sense to take a step back. It’s less environmentally responsible, but it could make a difference in reducing transmissions.”

Dr. Robyn Gershon, a professor of epidemiology at New York University’s School of Global Public Health, also said Baker made the right call, adding that whatever can be done to minimize the spread of the virus through inanimate objects is prudent.

“The whole point is to keep the virus off our hands — all of our hands — and the more ways we can keep that from happening now (and especially in light of the fact that we don’t actually know how much is spread through this direct contact vs droplets) the better,” Gershon said in an email message to New Boston Post. “We also don’t know the infectious dose — how much of the virus is actually needed in order to cause infection. Until we know these important parameters of infection spread, we should be prudent and limit opportunities for contact — and if that means we go to plastic for now — that may be warranted now.”

Massachusetts is not alone in easing restrictions on single-use plastic bag use during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Connecticut Governo Ned Lamont lifted the state’s ordinary requirement that customers pay 10 cents per bag, trying to encourage their use.