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Plastic bag bans are being reversed amid coronavirus panic

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The spread of coronavirus is threatening to resurrect environmentally destructive single-use plastic bags, with a raft of states and cities putting previously approved bans on hold and some even reversing course.

Massachusetts, where 130 cities and towns had banned single-use plastic bags, last week reversed its position and instead banned reusable tote bags. San Francisco, which was one of the first U.S. cities to ban plastic bags, in 2007, this week banned reusable bags, mugs and other items. Colorado, Illinois, Maryland and New Hampshire have either stopped enforcing their plastic-bag bans or banned reusables outright.

In Seattle, food co-ops have been telling their customers not to bring their own bags, said Molly Moon, who owns a local chain of ice cream stores.

"I am kind of a hippie and bring my own bags to grocery stores, and now we aren't allowed to," Moon said. "When the hippies are telling you not to bring your own bags, you know things are real."

The plastic industry has been eager to capitalize on the public's newfound focus on cleanliness. In March, the Plastic Industry Association wrote to U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar urging him to "make a public statement on the health and safety benefits seen in single-use plastics," according to a letter obtained by Politico.

The problem: There's no science to conclude that plastic is less likely to transmit the coronavirus than other surfaces. A recent study found that the virus that causes COVID-19 can survive on plastic for up to three days. The study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, also found that the pathogen can survive on paper for 24 hours (Researchers did not test fabric or mesh.)

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Another study in the Journal of Hospital Infection looked at various types of coronaviruses, although not the one that causes COVID-19, and found that they persist up to five  days on surfaces like paper and plastic.  

"I fail to see how using plastic would make you more safe fro COVID-19," said Brian Nichols, an associate professor of biological sciences at Seton Hall University who studies viruses.

"What those studies do tell us is that there's a viable virus around, and we need to be taking precautions," Nichols added. 

The risk of catching the the coronavirus from a contaminated surface remains uncertain, public health experts said. Meanwhile, calls for the return of plastic falsely conflate older studies on reusable bags with more recent research on coronavirus.

"They're taking these new studies about coronavirus on surfaces and smashing them together with these old studies," said Ivy Schlegel, a research specialist with Greenpeace USA. Schlegel has traced the push to bring back plastic to think tanks and researchers with ties to the plastic industry.

One recently cited study from 2011, which found that shoppers rarely washed reusable bags, was paid for by the American Chemistry Council, a proponent of plastic. Another study traced an outbreak of gastroenteritis to a shopping bag that had been in a hotel room overnight with a severely ill person. A third study cited in the plastics industry's letter found bacteria on reusable bags, but did not look at viruses.

Schlegel pointed out that if reusable bags can transmit disease, the same could be true of purses, backpacks and even clothes that shoppers routinely take into grocery stores.

"Not to say that isn't a possible vector, but the disconnect is so vast with our understanding that COVID is spreading, and the idea that grocery bags are transmitting a unique type of disease is suspicious," she said.

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To lower your chances of catching the novel coronavirus, scientists recommend cleaning surfaces and washing hands frequently rather than fixating on one type of material over another. Nichols suggested regularly washing tote bags with the laundry to destroy any viruses, or simply letting them sit outdoors or in a garage for several weeks to let any virus die on its own.

Vineet Menachery, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, likewise recommended washing bags regularly or wiping them down with a sanitary wipe, which would destroy the virus in less than 60 seconds, he told Grist. He also noted that credit-card touch screens would be more likely to carry viruses than a shopping bags.

"Everyone is struggling to understand the virus, and the [plastic] industry is portraying it as black and white," Schlegel said. "This is training people to believe that plastic is the most sanitary, which we don't know — in fact it might be the opposite."

CBS News' Megan Cerullo contributed reporting.

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