SAN FRANCISCO — In the latest sign of how dramatically the coronavirus pandemic is altering the social landscape, even the liberal San Francisco Bay Area this week banned reusable grocery bags as a sanitary measure, dismaying recycling advocates who say durable sacks should still be allowed at stores.
The provision was among a host of lifestyle changes imposed Tuesday by six Bay Area counties in a rewrite of their first-in-the-nation March 16 order that required millions of residents to shelter at home. The counties have been credited with taking early actions that may have helped slow the spread in California.
The Bay Area counties reduced the types of businesses and facilities that can stay open to the public and tightened requirements for those still operating, including grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants still open for takeout or delivery. Among the updated requirements in the order, which lasts through May 3: “Not permitting customers to bring their own bags, mugs, or other reusable items from home.”
The rule appears to be the most stringent coronavirus-related restriction placed on reusable bags in California, which has banned single-use plastic bags since 2016. California allows the 70 or so jurisdictions whose local bans preceded the state ban, including most of the Bay Area, Los Angeles County and Sacramento County, to preempt state law.
California has aggressively moved toward reusable containers in an effort to reduce plastic consumption. Gov. Gavin Newsom last year signed the nation’s first state law banning hotels from using small single-use plastic containers for shampoo and other toiletries. State lawmakers have also worked on bills that would phase out single-use plastic by 2030 in California.
But the coronavirus has altered the state’s environmental march. Bottled water has flown off store shelves, while some fear the coronavirus will hinder efforts to build high-density housing near transit. Starbucks and Peet’s Coffee, which have coffee shops across Northern California, stopped refilling customers’ mugs earlier this month in favor of paper cups.
The plastics industry has lobbied on the federal level and in New York, New Jersey and other states, asserting that often-unwashed reusable bags are hotbeds for the coronavirus, which early research suggests can remain on surfaces. But so far, there hasn’t been evidence of industry lobbying in California.
Recycling advocates said they would prefer a statewide policy that says customers can still bring their bags into stores, but grocery employees don’t have to fill them.
“This fear of bringing reusable bags into the stores is misguided, but I certainly understand why store employees don’t want to handle somebody else’s things,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste. “I wouldn’t have any expectation that somebody is going to put my groceries into my bag that I brought from home.”
Murray said he had been working with union representatives and the grocery industry to try to get Newsom to issue statewide guidelines. Murray said the concern thus far has been driven by workers.
“CalRecycle is aware of that recommendation, and they haven’t been able to take action or get the administration to take action,” he said.
CalRecycle did not respond to a request for comment.
Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, said the union hasn’t taken a statewide position on customers’ bags, except to insist that if they are banned, jurisdictions should also waive fees for paper or reusable plastic bags. He said Safeway and other stores are allowing workers to decline filling reusable bags and praised the Bay Area’s approach.
“If you look at how the Bay Area has led on all of this, they led on shelter-in-place first,” he said. “They’re being responsive to what’s out there. From our perspective, it’s important to be responsive and be proactive.”
Another looming issue is what to do about recycling facilities at grocery stores, he said. “It’s been said that the virus stays on cardboard for 24 hours and could stay on other surfaces longer,” he said. “What are you going to do about that?”
The California Grocers Association said it hasn’t taken a position on the Bay Area’s order or the broader issue. The group was instructing its members to comply and issued guidelines today recommending that customers wash or disinfect their reusable bags after each use.
“As an industry, we didn’t have a position, but individual stores had positions,” said spokesperson Dave Heylen. “So there were some who banned them and then there were others that didn’t.”