Recently, a story appeared in the media about reusable shopping bags posing a health threat.  The key message was that without continued washing, germs such as E. coli will thrive in the bags and eventually lead to infection and disease.  As expected, this story has left more people confused than certain.

The concept of a dangerous cloth bag may be based on truth but that same argument can be made for clothing in general.  When clothes become visibly soiled or smell like they might be a haven for germs, they could, just like cloth bags, potentially lead to infection if they are not washed and dried before reuse.  It’s common sense.

So, why are cloth bags being villified? Are they really that evil? Is plastic the real way to stay safe? Or is this all political spin to once again convince people through fear that they should change their ways?

I personally believe it’s the latter.  Here’s why:

For one, the quoted study has not been published. It’s also strange that the data has yet to be shown in its entirety.  As far as I can see, there are only media reports.

In addition to this, the study came only after the Californian State Government signaled an interest in banning plastic shopping bags.  The story highlighted the Governor’s full support behind the move away from plastic bags.  As was stated in a release: “This bill will be a great victory for our environment.”  This story would go a long way to minimize the proposed changes.

But perhaps the greatest piece of evidence to show that this spirit of this story is firmly rooted in politics is the fact that for the last two years, these tactics have been used before by the plastic industry to convince people to turn away from cloth bags and return to plastic.

Back in the spring of 2009 a story emerged that questioned the use of cloth and reusable bags.  Without a hint of warning, this green option was under the microscope, literally, and the presence of potentially infectious bacteria led to the suggestion that people should throw out these bags and be happy that plastic bags were still available.  I remember because I was asked by numerous people and media whether or not this story was true.  I advised that to some extent, the story was true but the results were mainly for advice, not to initiate change.  There had been another attempt previous to this in 2008 but the transition to cloth hadn’t really taken off so there was little to no return on the story.

There are always problems with social behavior change and in many cases, a change means that certain industries will suffer.  Plastic has been a major part of our shopping culture for over a generation and the plastic industry has enjoyed the demand.  But the advent of the reusable cloth bag has led to measurable reductions in landfills and overall personal enjoyment arising from the idea that a small change will have a positive impact on the environment.  In many estimations, only a campaign of fear would put a dent in that trend.  Yet despite these attempts, I believe that the cloth bag revolution has reached the tipping point and the transition cannot be stopped.

Nor should it be.

I hope this puts the controversy to rest and that you can once again enjoy using cloth bags and the feeling of making a difference.  My only advice would be to wash those bags every now and then to keep them clean and fresh…just like your clothes.

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