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June 21st 2018 print

Roger Franklin

Bags, Bans and Bacteria

While whales might appreciate the ban on single-use grocery bags, supermarket chains have greater reason to rejoice. Not only will they shed the cost of catering to their customers' convenience, they can posture beneath a halo of conspicuous virtue. Alas, an unmentioned aspect of their gains is an increased risk of bacterial infections

bag IICome Saturday morning the phone will ring and Mum will be on the other end. At 90, she’s still sharp upstairs but the years have taken their toll in other ways. She needs a stick to ward off the wobbles that might see her take a catastrophic tumble, makes mental notes of the nearest seats and benches where she can gather her breath and is preternaturally aware of small children who might turn rowdy and knock her for six, as has happened in the past. When the call comes she’ll be wanting to know if I’m free to take her to the supermarket — the stock-the-larder trip we do, on average, two weekends out of four. It is no big deal helping her up and down the aisles, lifting things off shelves that are now quite simply too heavy for her to handle — the six-packs of tonic water, for example, which she says does wonders for the leg cramps that bother her in bed. Whether it is the quinine that conveys such benefits or the splash of late-night gin that accompanies it is an open question.

The big concern, though, isn’t cramps but her stomach woes, which two years ago saw her semi-conscious on the kitchen floor, dehydrated and raving. At the hospital they summoned a priest and the emergency room doctor told me that, all things considered, her chances weren’t good. Somehow she recovered and after a week of intensive care was her old self, complaining about the yobbo in the next-door ward whose bikie mates “use such terrible language” when visiting.  She called one of the tattooed brutes over to her bed and dressed him down for the “gutter vocabulary”. The babble of obscenities diminished considerably after that. Such is the authority of a mother, even when there is only 43kg of her.

This weekend, if there is salty language to be heard it will be hers. We’ll get to the checkout and she’ll be told that the grey, useful plastic bags, the ones with which she lines her kitchen tidy, are no longer available, banned from sale for the peril they are said to pose to whales and other finny wotnots. Instead, like every other Australian, she’ll be told to buy those green “eco” models that go for $1 each. As Saturday shopping expeditions typically see our joint tab come close to $300, that’s a considerable additional expense.

The additional cost, while it galls this pennywise daughter of the Great Depression, isn’t my chief concern; rather, it is her gastric troubles, the ones that almost killed her. While whales might be entitled to rejoice — contrary to green activists’ claims, the bags’ lethality on the scale often suggested is far from quantified or certain — humankind in general and Mum in particular definitely have something to worry about: bacterial infections.

In 2005, when San Francisco banned single-use bags, hospital admissions immediately spiked, with the number of associated deaths climbing by 46%, according to a joint research project by the University of Pennsylvania and  George Mason University. That study was assailed by the city’s health authorities, who rejected its methodology and conclusions, leaving those with no background in epidemiology none the wiser about who and what to believe. There is, however, another study which appears not to have been refuted and, bolstering its credibility, wasn’t conducted by legal scholars whose work might be seen by the cynical as laying the foundations for future class-action lawsuits. This one, Assessment of the Potential for Cross-Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags, was conducted by  researchers from Loma Linda and Arizona universities. He is the abstract (with emphasis and a link added):

The purpose of this study was to assess the potential for cross-contamination of food products by reusable bags used to carry groceries. Reusable bags were collected at random from consumers as they entered grocery stores in California and Arizona. In interviews, it was found that reusable bags are seldom if ever washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 8% of the bags, as well as a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens.

When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased 10-fold, indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags. Hand or machine washing was found to reduce the bacteria in bags by > 99.9%. These results indicate that reusable bags, if not properly washed on a regular basis, can play a role in the cross-contamination of foods. It is recommended that the public be educated about the proper care of reusable bags by means of printed instructions on the bags or through public service announcements.

The same study found no bacterial presence whatsoever in single-use plastic bags.

For the record, I don’t mind lending Mum a hand if it helps her enjoy life to the extent aches and pains will allow (and also to stall the day  I inherit the yapping and profoundly stupid little dog on which she dotes). To keep her safe, I will now have to wash  perhaps 20 eco bags after every trip to Woolies and that sticks in my craw almost as much as the PR campaign being waged by the bag ban’s promoters. If you are an ardent environmentalist, all that washing powder and electricity should be cause for concern as well. But it isn’t, of course, just as  other collateral aspects of the ban also fail to figure.

First, there’s supermarket chains’ profiteering, which is being dressed in the see-through robes of purported virtue. Take a recent Woolworths’ press release, which slathered on its Gaia-hugging with a trowel:

Green. It’s our colour.

But it’s time we went even greener. Because we believe that becoming more sustainable is the way forward….

… With our phase out of single-use plastic shopping bags on June 20th, Woolworths Supermarkets will offer a new green reusable shopping bag – with a lifetime replacement offer – for customers to purchase. Money made from the sale of the Bag for Good™ will also go to the Woolworths Junior Landcare Grants Program.

Woollies’ spin machine asserts that customer feedback prompted its decision, but when asked for details of this survey, who conducted it and the questions asked, the supermarket chain’s flak went all coy and referred Quadrant Online to other polls and surveys. These suggest CEO Brad Banducci is selectively deaf to a large body of his customers’ preferences.

The 2012 telephone poll commissioned by the ACT government and cited by Woolwoorths as evidence of popular support found better than one-third of shoppers opposed the ban and wanted single-use bags restored to checkouts. Woolies also referred us to further documentary “evidence” from the ACT, where a 2014 follow-up report found — Surprise! Surprise! — that the Greens-Labor coalition which controls the toy parliament was doing absolutely the right thing. Credibility spill in Aisle 4!

Will this be the end of the green coercion that has pumped electricity tariffs to economy-wrecking heights and seen cheap, off-patent incandescent light bulbs replaced by expensive, mercury-laden Turnbulbs, the ones or current Prime Minister insisted on mandating during his turn as a carbon-tax supporting environment minister? Not likely. Every long march begins with a small step, as the eco zealots from lobby group Plastic Bag Free Victoria (PBFV) made clear in a recent submission to the Victorian government. A small selection of their demands is reproduced below:

vic bag heads

On top of that little list the PBFVers also want smokers to return their butts to the point of sale, with heavy penalties if they don’t. If you set out to re-make society, why stop at bags when so much more of your fellow citizens’ aberrant behaviour is crying out for stern regulation?

Were it not for legislation that bans single-use bags nationwide as of July 1, it would be entirely possible to determine exactly how Australian shoppers feel about paying more for the eco-privilege of being inconvenienced while simultaneously subjected to the increased risk of bacterial infections. If, say, Woolies introduced its bag ban and Coles declined to follow suit, the growth or shrinkage in either chain’s sales would have been the proof of actual public sentiment. Alas, in a further example of the way things work in Australia, the law frees both chains from the overhead cost of providing checkout bags, allows them to sell lots more bin-liners that would otherwise not have been needed and improve productivity by forcing customers to bag their own goods, rather than see that service provided by the register attendant. Conspicuous virtue, and virtue-signalling, is indeed its own reward.

What can aggrieved consumers do? Well, for starters, they might think of purchasing their own bags. OfficeWorks offers them at $2 per 200 and a quick google on “singlet bags” will turn up plenty of other suppliers.  Shoppers living within walking distance of their favoured supermarket might simply consider taking the shopping trolley home with them, allowing that it isn’t hobbled beyond the carpark by one of those magnetic wheel locks. The money the chains save by no longer providing bags can be spent on recovering stray trolleys from nature strips and paying council fines when they aren’t.

And perhaps, by way of noting a fine hypocrisy, they might consider dashing off a short note to Woolies’ CEO Banducci,, who talks a good game about plastic bags but, for an eco activist, appears to pick and choose his enviro causes with some care. When not issuing virtuous press releases from the company’s Sydney HQ he might well be found at his boutique winery in the south island of New Zealand. Presumably he crosses the Tasman in a carbon-spewing jetliner, all those plastic bags in the water making swimming far too perilous.

The last suggestion, just by the way, comes from Mum, who despite her age is a dab hand with googling things that interest her. She also notes that, while Aldi’s long-standing refusal to issue bags stopped us shopping there in the past, that objection no longer applies.

“Their stuff is better anyway,” she said this morning. “Bugger Woollies and Coles.”

Roger Franklin edits Quadrant Online