Before the advent of the ubiquitous plastic carry bags, reusable grocery bags were being extensively used and invariably these bags were made of cotton cloth because they were amenable to be folded and washed whenever get dirty. Use of cotton fabric based reusable bags including canvas bags started declining once plastic based soft films and hard baskets made their appearance followed by disposable carry bags. For decades these bags were an integral part of a house hold helpful in ferrying all types materials from the market to the homes. It was only recently that consumers as well as the civic authorities in many areas became aware of the risks and hazards posed by indiscriminate use of plastic bags for carrying practically everything required by a house hold. Plastic bags, especially those made from thin films of micron size, are environmental hazards as they are not biodegradable with a life of more than 800 years. It is a common experience in many urban areas in countries like India to see littered plastic bags strewn all over, choking drains and spreading filth and contamination all around. Though many civic bodies do realize the dangers from plastics, very little is done to tackle this nuisance with any sense of seriousness. Many retailers impose extra charges varying from Rs 2-12 per disposable bag if consumers want them but it is not expected to make any significant impact, There are rules and regulations that exist in some places but their enforcement is practically impossible due to many practical and logistical reasons.
It is against such a background that efforts are being made in many countries to persuade the consumers to revert to the old system of adopting reusable bags.The retail industry also plays its part by encouraging the customers through incentives and other means to bring their own bags instead of opting for disposable plastic bags. Segregation of plastics from the domestic garbage refuse is another step that helps to recycle them into valuable products while increasing use of plastics in road making opens up another avenue for permanent immobilization with no cause for environmental worry. Though paper bags were considered as an alternate option once, their vulnerability to easy tear and moisture absorption and vast requirement of forest resources for manufacture effectively rule them out as a viable option. Probably multi-use plastic baskets and cotton bags may be the ultimate choice if the current predicament vis-a-vis disposable plastic bags is to be overcome.
In one of the recent surveys in the US it was brought out that 97% of those using multi-use bags never washed their bags and repeatedly use them unmindful of the consequences of build up of contamination over a period of time. Interestingly more than 50% of bags tested carried significant levels of E.coli though presence of any pathogen was not tested. Washing could reduce the bacterial load considerably and prevent their accumulation to reach critical concentration capable of causing food borne infectious diseases. Levels of contamination can be alarmingly high in areas where weather conditions are conducive to fast multiplication of bacteria. Atmospheric temperature and humidity play a critical role in the growth of bacteria and the extent of danger can be high in tropical countries like India where cleaning and detergent washing can only ensure some degree of safety when reusable bags are used. Though there is no definitive proof for presence of disease causing bacteria in theses reusable bags, absence of data cannot be taken to mean that they are absent. An organized and in-depth study in a country like India where conditions are optimal for bacterial growth, can only bring to surface any dangers originating from reusable grocery bags.
Many countries are planning to ban use of carry bags made from non-biodegradable plastic materials fearing large scale environmental and health dangers without thinking about an alternate system that will cause least disruption to the shopping activities of millions of people every day and if reusable bags are the real option massive education of the citizens is required for keeping their bags clean after each shopping trip. If the plastic "culture" is to be shunned slowly, school going children need to be sensitized at an early stage about the undesirable consequences of use of plastics so that they grow up as responsible citizens spreading the message in the society.