Northern Nevada grocers ban or limit the use of reusable bags in response to the novel coronavirus – environmental impact unknown

Prophylactic shopping, Reno, NV, April 5, 2020 - image - Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

Grocery stores are perhaps the most essential of businesses. As the COVID-19 outbreak has grown in northern Nevada, checkout stations in grocery stores have had to adapt to the biological reality of safely doing business during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Among a number of changes, several of the region’s largest grocery retailers have rolled back the use of reusable bags in light of scientifically legitimate concerns the bags are vectors for the novel coronavirus. If, as some studies suggest, 15 percent of grocery shoppers use reusable bags, then the number of disposable plastic and paper bags at-large in the region is on the rise. By how much is a factor of consumer choices and store policies.

The following list includes the latest reusable bag policies for the major grocery outlets in northern Nevada during the COVID-19 outbreak. The order of the grocers listed reflects a ranking based on the environmental friendliness of the company’s disposable carry bag policy prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Updated 4-9-20.

Costco – current reusable bag status: allows the use of reusable bags if the customer packs them during the COVID-19 outbreak. 

Costco has never distributed paper or plastic bags. The warehouse retail giant offers boxes gleaned from stocking the shelves, but has never distributed short-life carry bags. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag.

Natural Grocers – current reusable bag status: you can use a reusable bag but have to pack it yourself during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Natural Grocers in Reno and across the western United States offer shoppers the use of boxes gleaned from stocking the shelves, but the Denver-based company does not offer disposable bags in any form. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag.

Great Basin Community Food Co-op – current reusable bag status: no restrictions on the use of reusable bags during the COVID-19 outbreak. Patrons typically bag their own groceries.

The Co-op will offer recycled paper bags if they have them and a customer is in need, but otherwise, bring your own bag. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag.

Whole Foods Market – current reusable bag status: has banned the use of reusable bags during COVID-19 outbreak.

Whole Foods Market typically offers paper bags and a 5 cent credit for each reusable bag to be deducted from the bill or donated to a revolving set of local nonprofit organizations. They accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Winco – current reusable bag status: customers typically pack their own groceries at Winco, and there are no restrictions on the use of reusable bags during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Winco offers both paper and plastic bags, and because the customer packs their own groceries, the choice is theirs. They give a 6 cent credit for each reusable bag. They accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Trader Joe’s – current reusable bag status: customers can use a reusable bag but have to pack it themselves during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Trader Joe’s typically offers paper for customers without a bag. They do not offer a credit for reusable bags.

Sprouts – current reusable bag status: no restrictions on the use of reusable bags during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Sprouts offers plastic and paper bags and offer paper by default. They give a 5 cent credit for each reusable bag and accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Scolari’scurrent reusable bag status: you can use a reusable bag during the COVID-19 outbreak, but it is recommended customers put their groceries in a cart and bag them at their car. 

Scolari’s offers both plastic and paper bags, with paper upon request. They deduct 5 cents from the bill for each reusable bag and they do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Save Mart – current reusable bag status: you can use a reusable bag, and some workers will bag for the customer, but otherwise, the customer has to pack their own.

Save Mart offers both plastic and paper bags, with paper upon request. They deduct 5 cents from the bill for each reusable bag and they do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Target – current reusable bag status: you can use a reusable bag but have to pack it yourself.

Typically, Target offers plastic carry bags only. They do give a 5 cent credit for each reusable bag, and they do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Raley’s – current reusable bag status: has banned the use of reusable bags during COVID-19 outbreak.

Raley’s offers both plastic and paper bags, with paper upon request. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag but do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Safeway – current reusable bag status: has banned the use of reusable bags during COVID-19 outbreak.

Typically, customers get plastic by default at Safeway, but paper bags are available at every check stand. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag but do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Smith’s –  current reusable bag status: has banned the use of reusable bags during COVID-19 outbreak.

Smith’s offers plastic and paper bags, though the default is typically plastic. They do not give a credit for each reusable bag but do accept used plastic bags for recycling.

Wal Mart – current reusable bag status: you can use a reusable bag but have to pack it yourself.

Typically, Wal Mart offers plastic carry bags only. The do not give a credit for reusable bags, but they do accept used bags for recycling.

The Threat to Checkers, Baggers, and Customers

Brad is a front end supervisor at Whole Foods Market in Reno and says the COVID-19 outbreak continues to be stressful for the entire staff. Front end workers are being particularly impacted.

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected operations by degrees. In mid-March Whole Foods put tape on the floor to help guide patrons to maintain safe social distancing while in line.

Then they started a cyclical system of disinfection and the closing of every other check stand to make for more space between patrons. Checkers now stand behind a Plexiglas shield. Brad described an ongoing process of learning and subsequent action on the ground, and last week the nationwide chain banned the use of reusable bags.

“If something changes at the CDC (US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) on how do something, we do it the next day,” Brad said by phone. “We try to make sure everything’s parallel and that we’re complying with the safest way to protect people.”

The CDC guidance on the use of reusable bags is oblique. In a 2016 CDC recall order for salad mixes contaminated with Listeria, the agency wrote that reusable cloth bags can transmit a virus and should be decontaminated if a bag comes in contact with the norovirus.

“Wash reusable grocery bags often. Cloth bags should be washed in a washing machine, and plastic-lined bags should be scrubbed using hot water and soap.”

According to the CDC’s COVID-19 FAQ page, the virus can be transmitted through most inanimate objects, which would ostensibly include reusable bags.

“It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object, like a packaging container, that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads. In general, because of poor survivability of these coronaviruses on surfaces, there is likely very low risk of spread from food products or packaging.”

In 2018, researchers at the Loma Linda School of Public Health documented that reusable cloth bags transmitted a norovirus to anyone who touches an infected bag to include the customer, cashier, and bagger. Parts of the checkout stand were also contaminated during the test.

A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine on March 17 of this year adds specificity and granularity to the surface and airborne stability of the novel coronavirus, a report that also adds impetus for store managers to limit the use of reusable bags during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Environmental Impact

The environmental impact of a disposable bag is complex. The total environmental impact of a bag must assess not only the resources needed to create it but what happens to it after it’s manufactured.

A 2006 Environment Agency of the United Kingdom study assesses the life cycles of supermarket carrier bags and compares their environmental impacts to include their respective carbon, water and overall resource footprints. Conventional high-density polyethylene plastic, paper, cotton, and heavy polypropylene bags were among the types of carry bags studied.

How many times a bag is used is central to the carbon footprint calculus. The study shows, when compared to a plastic bag, a paper bag needs to be used at least 3 times to have the same carbon efficiency.

According to the UK’s Environment Agency study, a cotton bag needs to be used 131 times to rival the carbon efficiency of a plastic bag. Cotton is also a water and pesticide intensive crop.

Paper bags are manufactured using a variety of standards. International Paper is the largest paper bag maker in the United States and adheres to forest management, fiber sourcing, and chain of custody guidelines established by the Sustainable Forestry Project (SFI).

Chain of custody is an accounting system process that tracks wood fiber through the different stages of production. This certification process enables companies to make claims about how much of their product comes from certified lands, post-consumer recycled content, and how much is responsibly sourced fiber through SFI fiber sourcing certification.

The International Paper Company manufactured this bag to standards set forth by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative – image – Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

Whole Foods Market uses Dubl Life paper bags manufactured by the Bagcraft Corporation. The Rainforest Alliance and Forest Stewardship Council certify that the bags contain only recycled wood products.

Image – Brian Bahouth/The Sierra Nevada Ally

Compared to plastic bags, paper bags require a lot of water to manufacture. And paper bags contain a varying mix of recycled paper and wood fiber harvested directly from trees. The Renewable Bag Council says the U.S. paper recovery rate reached 68.1 percent in 2018 and met or exceeded 63 percent for the past nine years.

According to the Waste Disposal Corporation, plastic bags are recycled at a 1 percent rate. The waste disposal giant estimates that 4 trillion bags are distributed to consumers each year worldwide with 14 billion of those bags in the United States.

Unlike plastic carry bags, paper bags are more biodegradable. Waste Management estimates, as litter, it takes 20 years for a plastic bag to biodegrade. A paper bag requires 1 month.

The durability of plastic equals a planetary litter problem. The oceans and all subsidiary waterways have been and continue to be assaulted with plastic carry bags, from the bottom of the Marianas Trench to the Truckee River.

Ban the Bag

Many states and municipalities have banned the use of plastic bags at the point of sale. California was the first in 2016. Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont have followed.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states have enacted plastic bag legislation. Nevada is not among them. The laws vary from outright bans to mandated recycling and fees charged for each bag.

A bill introduced during the 2017 Nevada legislative session, AB344, would have imposed a 10 cent fee for each plastic bag at the point of sale and would have eventually phased out their use statewide. The measure would have also established the Plastic Bag Environmental Cleanup Fund in Nevada, but the bill never made it out of committee.

The cities of Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, and San Francisco have formally banned plastic bags.

Intensely green San Francisco notably banned the use of reusable bags last week in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Many of the nation’s leading retailers curtailed the use of reusable bags following San Francisco’s decision.

Difficult to say what the novel cornavirus means for the future of reusable carry bags. For Brad and the Whole Foods Market team in Reno, they keep refining their methods and are hopeful warmer weather and social distancing policies will bring the COVID-19 outbreak to a speedy end.

“We’re doing everything possible to protect customers,” Brad said. “Honestly, it’s been very stressful on everybody here. People crying in the store and, you know, we’re fighting. This is not easy. We still keep our customer service and we’re fighting to protect people.”


Brian Bahouth has been a public media journalist since 1994 and has lived in Reno since 2000. He first came to northern Nevada to be news director at KUNR, Reno Public Radio and has subsequently filed scores of reports for National Public Radio, Nevada Public Radio, Capital Public Radio and KVMR in Nevada City, California. He is co-founder of KNVC community radio in Carson City. Support his work.