Single Use Plastics by Katherine Witrick

In June of this year Canada proposed and has since passed a ban on single use plastics. Consumers recognize these types of products as straws, plastic bags, take out utensils and containers, cups and even cigarette butts. The ban, however, will not affect sterile medical and research supplies (disposable pipettes, PCR plates, etc.) The ban could go into effect as early as 2021, and is estimated to curb roughly 2-million tons of carbon pollution. The proposed bill also claims that it could stimulate the economy by producing 42,000 jobs. If this ban goes into effect Canada will be the largest country to take part in this type of ban.

Katherine Witrick is a former student of mine who has consented to tell about her personal experience with the consequences of potential bans of single-use plastics. Kat (Thompson) and I were partners in an effort to recruit Food Science majors at Resources Fairs during summer orientation at the University of Georgia. She impressed me with her enthusiasm about Food Science and her hard work in my classes. She is also a dedicated fan of US soccer. Don’t get between her and the screen during World Cup (men or women) broadcasts!

Plastic straws and accessibility

The plastic straw, has become a mascot against single-use plastics. Especially after watching the You Tube video of researchers removing a plastic straw from the nose of a majestic sea turtle. Twitter hashtags have been used in protest against the use of plastic straws. While I can understand that the knee-jerk reaction is to burn it all, like in case of Nero burning Rome, however I do not feel that by completely banning the use of single-use straws we are actually address the main culprit of plastics found within the world’s oceans. Completely banning the use of plastic straws places a burden on a number of people with disabilities and is a step backward for accessibility.

For many taking a sip of one’s favorite drink is a simple task that many of us take for granted. However, those, with motor disabilities often times have difficulty with these complex movements. Cerebral palsy, CP for short, is one of the most common motor disabilities diagnosis in childhood. CP is a motor disorder that can affect a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. CP occurs in every 2.1 out of 1,000 live births. Cerebral referring to the brain, is a brain injury that can occur in utero or shortly there-after birth. CP is a static injury that once occurs will not progress or cause any further damage, unfortunately the individual will have to live with the effects of CP for the rest of their life.

Like many disorders, there are varying degrees of severity ranging from extremely mild to severe. Those diagnosed with mild CP are independent and have no intellectual delays, while those with the severe form are often times are wheelchair bound and require assistant, and have intellectual disabilities. Those with the most severe form of CP have issues with drinking from an open cup, because of mouth spasms and their inability to control the flow of the liquid from the cup. Straws allow the user to have more control over the flow of the liquid reducing the risk of chocking and aspirating liquid into the lungs resulting in potentially hospitalizations or even death.

I understand activists are not trying to outlaw the use of straws, just plastic ones. I get that there are alternatives to plastic straws currently on the market like paper, metal, and even reusable plastic. We are all aware of the biodegradable potential that paper has, unfortunately if you are a slow drinker it dissolves before you have even had a chance to finish your drink, which for someone with CP could lead to a potential choking hazard. Metal straws which do not have the paper choking hazard, possess other risks to the drinker. Dependent upon the temperature of the beverage, a metal straw could cause serious injury to the drinker. Muscle spasms are common for people with CP and some even have spams that cause their jaw muscles to snap shut, potentially hurting their jaw, teeth, and the roof of their mouth if they are using a metal straw.

The reusable plastic straws resemble the single use straws the best, however they also have their drawbacks as well. To be able to use this type of straw you have to remember to always bring it with you. Now, as a mother of a young child I always feel like I am always traveling with everything but the kitchen sink. I have to admit that on occasion I have left my daughter’s sippy cup at home, however I am fortunate enough that she is able to drink from an open cup. However, this makes my point.

We all have moments of forgetfulness and often times people with severe CP have caretakers who are responsible for bring everything that person requires. These same caretakers are often times also responsible for all the cooking and cleaning and placing more responsibility and burden on these overtaxed individuals is not going to help either. These hardworking and caring individuals bring their own plastic straws with them when they go out, but like me are susceptible to moments of forgetfulness or simply overlooking these small items. Beyond someone remembering these reusable plastic straws, someone also has to pay for them.  Some individuals with the most severe forms of CP are on government assistance and unable to afford to purchase high volumes of plastic straws every month.

Instead of completely banning the use of plastic straws, how about restaurants keep some behind the counter and only give the straws out when asked by patrons. Those who do not necessarily need the straws will not ask for them, but they are still available for those who do. Great strides have been made to ensure accessibility for 61 million Americans who are diagnosed with a disability that affects their everyday life. We must continue to make strides for individual’s diagnosed with a disability to ensure that all American’s are able to lead the best life they can.

The dangers of reusable bags

Are reusable bags safer or even more environmentally friendly than single use plastics? Americans on average use roughly 400 plastic bags a year and with the growing concern over the environmental impact. Reusable bags have continued to gain popularity in the last decade or so for the transportation of purchased goods from the store to one’s home. However, people might be unaware that they are creating an environment in which cross contamination is almost certain. Cross contamination occurs when disease-causing microorganisms are transferred from food to food, hand to food, or cutting board to food. Raw meat is a carrier for a number of foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Campylobacter. Although, cooking food will destroy foodborne pathogens, there are a number of products that are precooked and additional heating is unnecessary or the product is eaten raw as in the case of produce, premade and/or prepackaged salads. These types of products are going to be highly susceptible to cross contamination within these reusable bags.

plastic grocery bag full of many plastic grocery bags
It doesn’t take long to accumulate numerous plastic bags

There are a number of reasons why people choose to use reusable bags from store incentives to be more environmentally responsible. However, a number of consumers are unaware of the potentially dangerous passengers that they are transporting within their reusable bags. In a study conducted by researchers at the University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ) and Loma Linda University (Loma Lina, CA) found that only a single bag was negative for HPC bacteria (< 30 CFU – colony forming unit) (1). In that same study 51% of the bags tested contain coliform bacteria, and in 7 (8%) of the bags tested researchers found E. coli. Although Salmonella and Listeria were not detected, E. coli is still just a serious and can cause major health issues for young children, older adults, and individuals who are immunocompromised.

To be honest, it is nearly impossible for reusable bags to not come in contact with some kind of bacteria especially at the grocery store. The meat counter alone contains bacteria from the raw meat and the juices and water from frozen chicken. Once used, how often do people actually wash their bags? I hate to admit it, but I actually never cleaned my reusable bags even though I am well aware of the dangers that could be awaiting me. I currently do not use reusable bags, because I always seem to forget them when I running out to the grocery store. Plus, my grocery store currently does not charge me for the single use plastic bags. My husband and I always try to bring back and recycle a bunch of the single use plastic bags the following week so our collection does not take over our house.

Reusable bags should be cleaned at least once a week or immediately after use, which is easier said than done. Bags should be cleaned frequently by thoroughly soaking both the inside and outside in hot water based on the recommendations of the CDC. When washed the bacteria load was reduced by over 99.9%. Washing reusable bags is not nearly as easy as throwing them in the wash at home. The material in which they are made of will determine how they should be cleaned. Woven bags can be easily placed into the wash, while bags made out of polypropylene should not. The polypropylene bags are your thermal insulated bags ideal for carrying your ice cream, frozen fruits/vegetables, and of course your meat. The polypropylene bags should be cleaned at least once a week by hand in warm soapy water and allowed to hang dry overnight. Despite routine cleaning these bags will still wear out and ideally should be replaced every few months.

canvas shopping bags for the supermarket
Reusable grocery bags–saving the earth or a potential food-safety hazard or both?

While there is a food safety issue associated with the use of reusable bags what is the environmental impact of utilizing a reusable bag. Studies have been conducted in Europe, the United Kingdom, and in the United States to look at life cycle assessments (2). In other words, how many times must I use the bag before the environmental impact is less than that of a plastic bag. In a Danish study from 2018, the researcher team determined that polypropylene bags commonly found at grocery stores need to be used 37 times, paper bags: 43 times, and cotton bags: 7, 100 times.

Although it has been demonstrated that reusable bags are more environmentally friendly after enough use, the most common issue with using reusable bags is actually using them. I admit that unless I am being charged per plastic bag I usually end up forgetting my reusable bags more often than not. One-way people try to remember their bags is by storing them in their car or underneath the kitchen sink, neither of which is a good idea. The summer heat can easily cause the temperature within a car to exceed well over 100°F (38°C), add a little moisture left over from the juices from the raw meat and you now have an ideal breeding ground for bacteria including foodborne pathogens (Salmonella, E. coli, etc.). Similar issues with storing bags under the kitchen sink. Where there is moisture there is the potential for mold growth and other bacteria. Bacteria love warm moist environments exactly the type of environment you might find underneath your kitchen sink. The question is where should I store all of my reusable bags, the kitchen pantry or another cool dry place is best.

The best way to get people and companies to switch from single use plastic is by providing incentives. Incentives are the best way for people to voluntarily give up a product instead of mandating people do so. Regardless, if a policy is put in place the resulting products must still function in such a way that they still meet the demands of the consumer. If an all-out ban is put in place, then we have to think about the what the alternative will cost, the amount of energy needed to produce the product, how difficult it will be to dispose of, what will it cost the business selling it, and not to mention does it actually solve the problem we currently have with petroleum-based plastics.


(1) Williams, D. L., Gerba, C. P., Maxwell, S., and Sinclair, R. G. 2011. “Assessment of the Potential for Cross-contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags.” Food Protection Trends. 31 (8) pp 508 – 513.

(2) Bisinellsa, V., et al. 2018. Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags. Danish Environmental Protection Agency, Denmark, Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark.

Katherine Witrick is originally from Athens, GA where she received her BS in Food Science and Technology from the University of Georgia. Following that she received her Ph.D. from Virginia Tech in Food Science and Technology where she characterized the Flavor and Aroma Compounds of Lambic (Gueuze) Beer. Since completing her PhD. she has spent time working for Virginia Tech, the USDA, and SweetWater Brewing Company. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale with a research specialty in the chemistry of flavor development during aging of fermented beverages.

Next week: Plastic Food Packaging is the Answer – So What is the Question? by Aaron L. Brody


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