Beware of suffocation

There’s a fuss in Britain and North America over plastic shopping bags. Compared to all the critical local and world issues it’s just silly. And it’s also an example of individual consumer “rights” being defended to the nth degree, trumping common goods and common sense.

The news – stories are pervasive — is about efforts in England and Scotland to tax and reduce the plastic shopping bags that clog landfills and harm wildlife. This isn’t at all new: governments in many other places have tried this with bans or taxes. And most everywhere the opposition has been ferocious; this time it’s focused on a health issue, almost with glee.

“How your bag-for-life could POISON you!” exclaims one of this week’s headlines on a tabloid story widely replicated from Britain to local American outlets. “Tax on shopping bags ‘will lead to more food poisoning!'” predicts the British  Telegraph. “Experts warn of ‘bag for life’ E-coli health threat” tops one British newspaper’s probe finding the bags “heavily contaminated.” Most stories cite American research showing a rise in hospital emergency room admissions – and deaths – after San Francisco banned plastic bags.

If I get this right, the problem is with people who carry items like raw meat or unwashed produce in bags they use again. At the risk of being insensitive to people infected by Escherichia coli, isn’t it obvious that putting food in dirty containers is, well, stupid? Most of us don’t need to be told to wash dishes, countertops and cooking pots; few require new research to inform us that dirt is, well, dirty. How are reusable shopping bags any different than, say, reusable plates or forks or cutting boards? 

Bacterial infections are a serious problem, one to do with public health, hygiene and ignorance of biology and how pathogens spread. Perhaps public education is needed to get people to wash their shopping containers, and take care to put raw meat in containers that can be discarded or cleaned well.

But the latest frenzy over shopping bags isn’t about public health. It’s about an aversion to oversight, and a refusal to think about, let alone give up, a small and silly convenience for a public good.

And if we can’t even come to terms with plastic shopping bags, how can we expect to deal with the really critical issues?

Further reading:
European Union wants plastic out of marine stomachs
Great Pacific Garbage Patch: Wikipedia
Sea Turtle Restoration Project: bag the plastics