A city that never sleeps in the era of the woke, San Francisco, just banned a very popular kind of shopping bags. What, the terrible single-use ones? Um no, as it happens, San Francisco banned that kind in supermarkets back in 2007, telling everyone to use reusable bags instead. But now they’ve banned reusables too because it seems there’s a major hygiene downside to them. Which reminds us, once again, that trade-offs are an inevitable part of life. There is no free lunch, or lunch bag.
For some time it has been de rigueur to deplore single-use plastic items. And not without reason; if they’re not properly disposed of they generate ugly litter and last for ages, although it’s a myth that they are a significant source of plastic waste in the oceans. But there are also good reasons people adopted them in the first place. They had very real virtues as well as drawbacks.
Among the virtues is that they are cheap. Which is an ugly word liable to provoke sneers about only caring about money. But under the less offensive rubric of affordable, it is a virtue. Including, as we are suddenly remembering, the amazing efficiency of items that can be used once in a medical setting then incinerated to prevent the spread of infection. Clearly the cost of sterilizing reusable masks, gloves and so on in a pandemic-beset ER or OR is not to be contemplated. So “cost” isn’t just this Scrooge & Marley thing. It means people’s valuable time and effort being used up unnecessarily or, worse, being unavailable when needed.
When it comes to plastic bags, they sure seem unimportant in an environmentally conscious society. They are flimsy while in use and oh so ugly stuck up in a tree, blowing down a street or lodged on a river bank. But they have virtues too, including a previously-overlooked one: like single-use petroleum-based surgical masks, they promoted the hygiene whose value we are suddenly rediscovering. Which is why San Francisco banned reusables over fears they would help bring COVID-19 into grocery stores.
Is the fear realistic? Well, it’s a matter of playing the odds. If someone is depositing SARS-COV-2 on their shopping bags it’s a fair bet they have it themselves and you’re letting them into your store. On the other hand, we don’t want germs traveling up the chain into the food supply or simply from one shopper to another via the post-checkout conveyor belt. (For the same reason, San Francisco has also banned bringing reusable mugs etc. into any “essential” store.) And while in normal times we would all ideally wash our reusables regularly it is important to remember that washing things also uses resources and generates waste… as well as requiring time and self-discipline that are also scarce resources, sometimes embarrassingly so in the latter case. There is no free lunch.
As of late last week, San Francisco was one of the parts of California hardest-hit by the pandemic. Though nothing like New York City, it had 434 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 7 deaths. But you have to wonder just how bad single-use plastic bags were if they’re suddenly allowable in the face of those numbers. Because it is all about the trade-offs.
Which brings us to one final point about trade-offs. The plastic problem in the oceans is not the result of North Americans or Belgians throwing straws in the local creek. Rather, it is a tidal wave of debris from a handful of Asian countries (the World Economic Forum says 90% of the plastic in the oceans comes from 10 rivers of which eight are in Asia, and more than half the plastic comes from this dirty five alone: China, yes again, plus Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand) whose citizens and governments genuinely are way behind on environmental matters including using rivers as trash cans. And who, being poor, have trouble affording real measures to combat pollution (including, be it noted, enforcing rules of whatever quality).
See, it’s a tradeoff.