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September 2014 Brief: Volume 21, Number 25

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Will You Have a Paper Bag or the Plague?


by Deborah Thornton



Like environmentalists in San Francisco, the Iowa City group 100 Grannies promotes a ban on plastic bags – in favor of fabric bags. Unfortunately though well-intentioned, they are not “saving the environment,” they are actually spreading norovirus and making their grandchildren and friends sick.


Norovirus causes vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps, chills, low-grade fever, headache, muscle aches, and fatigue. It is the infamous culprit that has made hundreds of cruise ship passengers sick. If someone says they have the stomach flu or food poisoning, what they really have in most cases is the norovirus. Some studies show that noroviruses cause over half of food-borne illnesses, because they are highly contagious and hard to kill.[1] Norovirus is “one of the most infectious viruses known to man,” according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). It reminds me of the plague, and is worse in many ways than Ebola. The only thing which kills it is 5 to 25 tablespoons of bleach per gallon of water.


How is the norovirus transmitted? As a major case study in Oregon revealed, it can be transmitted through a reusable grocery tote bag. The bag, which contained cookies, chips, and grapes for a girls’ soccer team, was contaminated with norovirus. As a result of eating food carried in the filthy bag, the girls had severe vomiting and diarrhea.[2] When the “laminated woven polypropylene” bag was tested – two weeks later – it still contained norovirus.


In other tests, half of reusable grocery bags had coliform bacteria on them and eight percent had E. coli – in other words, fecal contamination. All the 100 Grannies and “Ban the Bag” efforts are doing is making our children sick.


Ok, Granny is sorry she made the kids sick – but we’ve got to save the environment. So Granny can start washing and bleaching her grocery bags every week. Unfortunately, only 3 percent of people regularly wash their bags, according to the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University.[3] The viruses and bacteria we’re toting around on these dirty fabric bags make over 19 million people sick every year. Now, that’s a crisis the grannies should be addressing!


“But we’ve got to save the environment and we all know plastic bags are a major landfill contributor, emit greenhouse gasses, and are made from imported oil.” Fortunately, none of those statements are true. Your common plastic bag is made from 80 percent polyethylene. Polyethylene is a waste product of refined natural gas, not oil. Natural gas is an abundant and inexpensive resource. Interestingly, the ethylene in natural gas must be removed before it can be used, and if not it burns off as greenhouse gas, a real environmental hazard.[4] The ethylene is used to make plastic bags. Plastic bags actually help the environment by being a productive use of waste material. Additionally, plastic bags “require 70 percent less energy to manufacture and transport than paper bags, generate 50 percent less greenhouse gas, and create 80 percent less waste” during manufacturing.[5]


Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and most are reused three times before going in the trash – usually as holders of other trash, dirty diapers, or pet feces. When recycled they are made into construction and building products such as plastic lumber or new bags. As the bags are exposed to sunlight and age they become brittle and eventually break up, they don’t remain whole forever.


According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the three largest categories of landfill waste are paper products (27 percent), food waste (15 percent), and yard trimmings (14 percent).[6] The amount of plastic bags in landfills is less than 0.6 percent of the total waste collected, according to Steven Stein, a trash, litter, and pollution expert with Environmental Resources Planning.[7]


In San Francisco, the plastic bag trash on city streets actually increased after the bag ban, from 0.59 percent in 2007 to 0.64 percent a year later. Much was found near improperly set-out trash. By 2013 the amount of paper grocery bag trash on the streets was 44 percent.[8] Of three cities studied – Oakland, California; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco – San Francisco had the most paper bag trash at 86 percent of the total. So plastic bags aren’t the problem in San Francisco, the problem is people who litter or don’t put their trash out correctly – no matter what kind of bag they use.


But, San Francisco’s slobs aside, plastic bags litter the roadway and blow into trees everywhere and the 100 Grannies don’t like it. According to the Keep America Beautiful Foundation this is not true either. Their 2009 study of litter in the United States found that 90 percent of roadway trash is less than four inches in size, and the number one trash item is cigarette butts, not plastic bags.[9]


If the 100 Grannies want to really help the environment and their grandchildren – instead of making them sick – they would be advocating against littering – whether paper bags, plastic bags, or cigarette butts. They should not use cloth bags for groceries or to take snacks to soccer games. If they persist in this misguided behavior and effort, they should have to come clean up after their grandchildren when norovirus makes them throw up at 2:00 a.m. in the morning.


[1] “Norovirus: Symptoms and Treatment,” Children’s Health, WebMD, August 2, 2012, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[2] Brenda Goodman, “Norovirus Outbreak Traced to Reusable Grocery Bag,” WebMD Health News, May 9, 2012, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[3] Barrett Newkirk, “Eww, Reusable Grocery Bags’ Germs Can Make You Sick,” The Desert Sun, January 6, 2014, <> accessed on August 9, 2014.
[4] Anthony van Leeuwen, “Plastic Bags In Landfill – Not a Problem,” Fight the Plastic Bag Ban, March 14, 2014, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[5] “Nobody Likes Litter: Plastic Bags and Recycling,”, 2014, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[6] “Municipal Solid Waste,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2014, <> accessed August 10, 2014.
[7] Steven R. Stein, “ER Planning Report Brief: Facts about Plastic Retail Bags in Litter,” January 2013, Environmental Resources Planning, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[8] “2013 Paper and Plastic Bag Litter Study,” Environmental Resources Planning, LLC, October 2013, p. 17, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.
[9] “Executive Summary,” 2009 National Visible Litter Survey and Litter Cost Study, Keep America Beautiful, Inc., Figure ES-2 Top 10 Aggregate Litter Items, All U.S. Roadways, September 18, 2009, <> accessed on August 10, 2014.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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