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Combating Fake News: Plastic Bags Are Not Better than Reusable Shopping Bags

Ally Nelson |

As we have recently reported, the propaganda regarding the unsafety of reusable shopping bags amid the COVID-19 global health crisis spread like wildfire. Many news outlets use a combination of fearmongering and incomplete scientific research results to promote the use of plastic bags again to the detriment of the reusable ones.

In the previous article, we focused on why the media is pushing forward the oil & plastic industry’s agenda. Claiming that the new coronavirus resists a significant number of days on textile surfaces without citing the research proving it does not is creating suspicion and panic for the population.

Today, we will discuss the available scientific proof and the latest discoveries regarding the resilience of the COVID-19 on surfaces, trying to combat the recent fake news, and providing you with the latest data capable of helping you discern fact from money-guided and concerted misinformation.

Fake News and Half-Truths Thrown in the Mix

Since some of the conservative media outlets began demonizing the reusable shopping bags (made of cloth and other materials) and praising the single-use plastic shopping bags, some states and cities halted or even rolled back their efforts in banning the plastic bag.

Those who claim that plastic is safer than cloth or other materials quote a combination of old studies on other coronaviruses than this new one, research involving bacteria and not viruses, or studies that never focused on reusable shopping bags at all.

This issue has dire consequences if left not scrutinized. When it came to shopping for groceries during the pandemic, everybody agreed that reusable tote bags were the primary choice to stay safe and prevent the spreading of the virus.

Carrying your shopping bag that you clean and disinfect at home, as usual, seems to be the sensible thing to do as opposed to using single-use plastic bags that exchanged an indefinite number of hands until you touched it and brought it home. Now, we witness concerted efforts in promoting the plastic agenda, with NGOs and other oil-interested organizations bluntly requesting the POTUS and the government to take their side.

As journalists discovered, all it takes to reveal the sources of such pro-plastic and pro-pollution movements is to follow the money.

It has become clear that the oil and plastic industry is exploiting this pandemic and peoples’ fears to stay in business. While plastic pollution takes a tremendous toll on all our lives and the environment, the issue under debate today is our safety.

So let’s see what the most recent studied related to this new human coronavirus say about its resilience on surfaces and the risks we need to consider when we use different objects and materials.

The Resilience and Spread of the COVID-19 on Different Surfaces: Debunking Myths and Fake News one Scientific Study at a Time

Agreeing that the world and scientific community has still a lot to learn about the new coronavirus, the spreading, and its resilience on different surfaces, researchers tested the stability of SARS-CoV-2 in different environmental conditions.

What fake news outlets missed to tell the public was that such research debunked their claims. Moreover, some papers completely “forgot” to quote studies conducted in the past months, preferring to focus on research that took place in 2011 or 2018, when SARS-CoV-2 was not even an issue.

One of the first studies conducted on the new human coronavirus, the one causing the present pandemic, was the one published in March 2020 by the New England Journal of Medicine.

  • According to the results, the new virus remained viable in the air for up to three hours.
  • Moreover, researchers found that it could remain viable up to four hours on copper surfaces and up to a day on cardboard surfaces.
  • To quote the research results, “SARS-CoV-2 was more stable on plastic and stainless steel than on copper and cardboard, and the viable virus was detected up to 72 hours after application to these surfaces.
  • Also, the paper states that “the longest viability of both viruses (SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2) was on stainless steel and plastic; the estimated median half-life of SARS-CoV-2 was approximately 5.6 hours on stainless steel and 6.8 hours on plastic.

Again, what fake news outlets missed when they began discussing the safety of plastic versus the safety of reusable shopping bags was that the cited research never studied the resilience of the new coronavirus on textiles or cloth.

Here are, in short, the results published in the New England Journal of Medicine in March this year:

  • Aerosols: 3 hours
  • Copper: 4 hours;
  • Cardboard: 24 hours;
  • Stainless steel: 72 hours;
  • Plastic: 72 hours.

There are some essential conclusions we need to understand and remember from this particular study:

  • It was one of the first such research that tested the stability of the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) on surfaces like plastic and cardboard, without taking into account either cloth in general or reusable tote bags in particular.
  • It compared the stability of the new coronavirus with the stability identified in the SARS coronavirus;
  • The scientists experimented in a controlled environment featuring 70-degree Fahrenheit room temperature (21 degrees Celsius) and 40% relative humidity;
  • The research team found that both coronaviruses resisted in viable form the longest on stainless steel surfaces and plastic surfaces;
  • One significant difference between the two viruses was that the new one lived three times more than the old SARS on cardboard: 24 hours as opposed to eight hours.

Another issue we all need to understand is that the environmental conditions change the game completely when it comes to the transmission and resilience of this virus. Temperature and humidity variations have a tremendous impact on the lifespan of the virus.

As an example, research published in February this year in the Journal of Hospital Infection showed that an increase in temperature (from 68 degrees Fahrenheit to 86 degrees Fahrenheit) – meaning 20 degrees Celsius to 30 degrees Celsius – led to a virus life and viability decrease of 50% on stainless steel surfaces.

These results received backup from a study published in February this year and revised in April 2020 in SSRN, stating that high temperatures and high humidity reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

If we look at the chronological order of events, we realize that after February and March 2020 – the publishing dates of the Journal of Hospital Infection and the New England studies – the world learned that the new human coronavirus could live on plastic surfaces up to three days. Besides, we all learned that, on certain surfaces, high temperatures and high humidity could reduce its lifespan and spreading rates.

We have two points to make here:

  1. There was no mention of textiles, fabrics, tote bags, clothes, etc. whatsoever in either of the two studies mentioned above;
  2. Using high temperatures to shorten the viability and spreading of the virus on tote bags, clothes, and other textile items is standard practice. After all, most of our textiles, from bedding to sneakers, end up in our washing machines eventually. However, nobody heard of machine-washing your single-use plastic bags.

Another scientific study we need to focus on now is the one published in the journal The Lancet Microbe at the beginning of April 2020. The conservative media spreading fake news and misinformation regarding the unsafety of reusable tote bags does not even acknowledge the existence of this paper, as it proves the oil and plastic lobbyists wrong.

The Lancet researchers checked the viability of the new human coronavirus on different surfaces (cloth included) in the following experimental conditions: a 71-degree-Fahrenheit room (22 degrees Celsius) at 65% relative humidity. Their results confirm – in the vast majority – the previous findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine, with a few differences.

Here are, in short, the results provided by the Lancet at the beginning of this month:

  • Printing and tissue paper: the virus can last up to 3 hours;
  • Wood and cloth fabric: the new coronavirus disappears after 2 days;
  • Glass and paper money: the virus becomes inactive after 4 days;
  • Stainless steel and plastic: the longest time until the virus becomes inactive – namely, 7 days.

What strikes the most with this new Lancet study is the resilience of the new coronavirus on the outward-facing side of a surgical mask. It took 7 days in the above-mentioned experimental conditions for the new coronavirus to become inactive.

Below, you can find a graphic put together by Shayanne Gal from Business Insider summarizing the results published by the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet Microbe.

Image courtesy of Business Insider

As you can easily see from the visual representation above, the virus’s lifespan depends on its environment. Nothing changes from what we knew last month or two months ago. Washing and sanitizing our hands and all our items, using cleaning products, and refraining from touching our faces (nose, mouths) after handling objects are still the best ways to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Using reusable shopping tote bags and washing them regularly is just another health routine, similar to washing hands after we enter our homes or brushing our teeth twice a day. Of course, lack of hygiene can lead to the spread of all sorts of infections.

What fake news promotes is the idea that “viruses and bacteria” can be responsible for the spreading of gastrointestinal diseases, E.coli, and other foodborne illnesses. Nevertheless, the SARS-CoV-2 is not a foodborne illness, is it? It is not a bacterium, and it is not some old-fashioned virus we knew and dealt with in the past. The new coronavirus is still airborne to some extent, spreading through droplets from one person to the next.

The reason why foodborne bacteria can spread from shopping bags is that people do not disinfect their reusable tote bags properly. Cross-contamination is nothing new, and it certainly did not appear together with the COVID-19 pandemic. On the contrary, what this health crisis taught people was to wash all their canvas tote bags correctly and more often.

Cleaning and disinfecting food-carrying containers, from the tote bag you shop with to the polypropylene or glass casserole you take your lunch in for work, are mandatory activities at any time, not only during a pandemic. To promote the idea that tote bags are not safe just because you have to wash them is as absurd as saying that cotton clothes are unsafe.

If single-use plastic bags are more reliable than reusable shopping bags simply because we don’t need to (and we can’t) wash them at high temperatures with bleach and cleaning products, what should we do every time we go outside and return home? Burn our clothes or throw them away in a landfill? Wear single-use plastic items to avoid infections? Sleep in plastic sheets?

The Dangers of Fake News vs. the Importance of Having Our Facts Straight

If we were to combat fake news with other half-truths, we could say that trustworthy scientific studies showed some coronaviruses could last on metal, glass, or plastic for up to nine days. However, it would be a partial fact that could be as dangerous as the recent fake news demonizing reusable tote bags.

The researchers studying the resilience of viruses on different materials who released the “9-days resilience on plastic” conclusion never studied the new coronavirus. What they did was to hypothesize a potential resilience of the SARS-CoV-2 on surfaces by looking at its cousins – the coronaviruses responsible for SARS and MERS.

Such half-truths and incomplete research results have devastating effects, no matter if some promote the ban of all things plastic. In contrast, others foster an environment of confusion regarding the use of materials like cloth, cardboard, or even glass. Fake news and incomplete facts are damaging, no matter what plan they serve.

Bottom Line

We have a lot to learn about this new coronavirus, scientists and governments agree. However, the spread of the virus through reusable shopping bags and their unsafety is a myth debunked by studies explicitly conducted on this new coronavirus and not later than this month.

Moreover, as you have seen above, the new virus resists more on plastic than on cloth items in general, depending on various environmental (temperature & humidity) conditions. The promotion of single-use plastic bags and the rollback of their ban serves the interests of the oil-plastic industry and lobbyists, who, we have to admit, is taking quite a mighty blow as of late with the new pro-environmental legislation.

We hope all of us find the wisdom to discern verifiable facts from fabricated ones and continue to do our part in preserving the health and safety of the others and the planet alike.