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Paper or Plastic (or Deadly Food-Borne Pathogens)?

The Reusable Grocery Bag Plague
A shopper packs groceries into reusable bags in Brooklyn, N.Y.
A shopper packs groceries into reusable bags in Brooklyn, N.Y.Photograph by Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A couple of years ago, our grocery store gave us a reusable nylon shopping bag, and I try to use it. Usually, however, I don’t. I rarely have the bag with me when I go to the store, either because I’m coming from work, because my wife is carrying it around with her gym clothes in it, or simply because I forget. I feel bad about this—because of my absent-mindedness, a landfill is that much fuller. I picture the plastic bag I use to bring my cereal and eggs and chard home as it gets blown out to sea, where a seagull or dolphin chokes on it.

From now on, though, I’m going to feel less guilty after coming across this working paper that suggests reusable shopping bags can kill you. Recent years have seen a raft of bans put in place on plastic bags—Los Angeles and San Francisco both have them, as does China. In their paper, University of Pennsylvania economist Jonathan Klick and the lawyer Joshua Wright decided to look at emergency room admissions for illnesses related to food-borne bacteria before and after San Francisco County imposed its ban in 2007. They found that the problem had increased by more than one fourth, and that deaths had risen by the same amount.