Paper, plastic, or lead – and the Law of Unintended Consequences

This week, the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) released new lab results showing that a number of major retailers’ reusable shopping bags contained excessive levels of lead.

Last year, a local group found lead in some of Wegmans’ reusable bags, and the grocery chain pulled them from the shelves. But it looks like the problem is more widespread.

According to the press release, bags from 44 organizations were tested, and “16 are selling or distributing reusable bags containing lead in amounts greater than 100 ppm (parts per million), which is where many states set the limit for heavy metals in packaging.”

National chains such as CVS, Safeway, Bloom, and Walgreens were among those with high levels of lead found in their reusable bags. CVS and Safeway led the pack with 697 and 672 ppm respectively; both were nearly seven times the 100 ppm limit. To date, CVS is the only store that tested above 100 ppm to have recalled their bags. Previously lululemon athletica, Sears-Canada, and Wegmans have all recalled bags due to high levels of lead.

Other retailers testing positive for excessive levels of lead included Staples, Giant Eagle, Piggly Wiggly, Giant, Gerbes, KTA Superstore, Brookshire Brothers, Stater Bros., and, ironically, the District of Columbia Department of Environment.

Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences, which in short says that sometimes the consequences of actions are unexpected. Could be a positive result, could be negative, or it could make the problem worse.

“Across the country, legislators are proposing bills to ban or tax paper and plastic bags, but the unintended consequence of such legislation is that people are using reusable bags, which independent testing shows can often contain excessive levels of lead,” said CCF Senior Research Analyst J. Justin Wilson, in the press release. “As an advocate for consumer choice, I believe consumers should have the option of using lead-free plastic and paper bags when they’re bringing home their groceries.”

“Environmental activists are trying to have it both ways. They’ve spent decades campaigning against lead in paint, toys, and even packaging, but when it comes to their own sacred cow, they seem willing to ignore the issue,” concluded Wilson in the release. “In the end, retailers shouldn’t have been goaded into selling these bags in the first place. They were merely doing their best to respond to environmental activists’ demands.”

In other words, we try to save the environment by getting people to use reusable bags other than paper or plastic – and the solution ends up being poisonous.

Me? I’d rather have paper. I have a few of those reusable bags only because people give them to me. Then again, I’d be happy writing with paper and pencil and sending letters with stamps.

What do you think? Is it worthy giving up paper or plastic for lead tainted reusable bags? Have we become so worried about the environment that we act without thinking? And do we really need to buy reusable bags from China, where everything seems to be tainted with lead? Why can’t a US company make them – thereby helping the environment and the US economy?

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3 responses to “Paper, plastic, or lead – and the Law of Unintended Consequences

  1. I inadvertently sneaked around the back side of this issue. I’ve been using some cotton totes that I bought back in the 90s at -of all places- a womens ministry conference. I love them. Who knew I could ever be on the edge of a trend?!

  2. Before we universally condemn reusable bags as being no better than paper or plastic, keep in mind that the study only found 16 out of 44 bags to have more than 100 ppm of lead. Most of the bags were just fine. By contrast, every paper bag made uses up trees and every plastic bag thrown away has the potential to be bad for the environment. Reusable bags still appear to be a safer option, just check where you’re buying them.

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