Nova Scotia

Should you use a reusable shopping bag? Government, stores have different answers

As Canadians struggle with changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, some wonder if it's safe to use reusable bags for grocery and other shopping.

There are concerns around just how clean those bags are

A sign posted in the Atlantic Superstore on Barrington Street in Halifax on March 31 says the store is only using plastic bags. (Carsten Knox/CBC)

As Canadians struggle with changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the issues being discussed is whether it's safe to use reusable bags for grocery and other shopping.

It has caused some, like Robyn Warren of Belle Isle, N.S., to call on the provincial government to temporarily ban the use of reusable plastic bags to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

"To me it's a no-brainer that you would even think of bringing something like that into a grocery store," Warren said, noting he's seen people with dirty, unwashed reusable bags.

'Manage hygiene. Think where you've been'

"Grocery bags have people upset," Dr. Lynora Saxsinger, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Alberta, commented on CBC's The National recently.

"I think part of it is because there was a study suggesting that the virus is still viable on plastic after about 72 hours," she said.

That study was published March 17 by the New England Journal of Medicine. Saxsinger did not offer an opinion on the use of reusable bags, but she said they should be washed frequently.

"People should pay attention to what they're doing with their belongings and where they've been before assuming things carry risk," she said.

"Anything you carry that might have virus contamination, you can get rid of your risk by washing your hands thoroughly after you touch things," Saxsinger said.

Government views vary

In the U.S., some states have temporarily banned the use of reusable bags while others have delayed a ban on single-use plastic bags because of concern over spreading the virus.

In B.C. last week, the Ministry of Health issued "'guidance" to grocery and other food stores in an effort to stem the spread of the virus.

"Provide clean carry-out bags for purchased food and grocery products," the document said.

Loblaw Atlantic, which owns the Atlantic Superstore chain, has temporarily waived the fee for paper and plastic bags. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

It said customers should not use their own reusable bags and signs should be posted at each checkout indicating no customer packaging is to be used or placed on checkout counters. 

In Nova Scotia, the province's chief medical officer of health addressed the question on March 27.

"I don't see that there's any substantive risk from reusable bags. I think that's very low down on the possibility, especially if everybody is adhering to good hand-washing [and] cleaning in homes," said Dr. Robert Strang.

"I don't think this is a major issue we need to be concerned about."

Retailers, too, are trying to figure it out 

"Some of our stores are asking our customers to refrain from bringing their own reusable bags, while others require customers to pack bags brought from home," said Mark Boudreau, spokesperson for Loblaw Atlantic which operates the region's chain of Superstores.

He said it's not possible to guarantee that every customer's personal bags have been properly sanitized, which could pose a risk to employees and customers. So the company has made a corporate decision to temporarily waive the fee for paper or plastic bags.

Sobeys banned single-use bags in its 255 stores across the country as of January 31. The company says if Health Canada were to say reusable bags should no longer be used, Sobeys would offer paper bags to customers. (Ken Linton/CBC)

Sobeys banned single-use plastic bags in its 255 stores across the country as of January 31 and continues to allow customers to use reusable bags.

"We're in constant contact with local health authorities for guidance and to date we have not received direction to stop using reusable bags. If their direction changes, so will ours," said Jacqueline Weatherbee, spokesperson for Sobeys.

She said if Health Canada was to say reusable bags should no longer be used, the company would continue to offer paper bag options in Sobeys-branded stores and plastic in their other grocery chains, including Foodland and Co-op.

Weatherbee said Sobeys is asking customers who shop with reusable bags to pack their own groceries. The company suggests keeping reusable bags clean by washing them frequently, drying them completely, cleaning where you place the bag, and storing them in a cool space.

The Retail Council of Canada, which represents 45,000 businesses, said it prefers members have a choice in determining what type of bag is best for their business.

"Fact is there are a lot of competing scientific studies that are out there. Some are funded by those that have an agenda and then there are studies that are more reliable so we'll leave it to our members to make those determinations as to what their comfort level is," said Jim Cormier, the Council's Atlantic director.

Last year, the P.E.I. government banned single-use plastic bags and imposed a 15-cent fee on each paper bag. Cormier said the province has agreed to waive the collection of that fee because of concerns from customers about the cleanliness of other shoppers' reusable bags.

About the Author

Yvonne Colbert

Consumer Watchdog

Yvonne Colbert has been a journalist for nearly 35 years, covering everything from human interest stories to the provincial legislature. These days she helps consumers navigate an increasingly complex marketplace and avoid getting ripped off. She invites story ideas at yvonne.colbert@cbc.ca.

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