When I travel, my first stop in any new place is the grocery store. Walking the aisles gives me a sense of real life in the places I only get to visit. I scan produce sections for local ingredients I do not recognize. I compare seafood offerings to what I can get in Maine. I check out the cheese. I look for place-based condiments and pickles. And I see if they sell Oreos so I can report back to my dad who eats them daily. I leave the place – the store and the general locale – with a souvenir reusable shopping bag. I have collected bags from a dozen states and Puerto Rico, Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, England, France, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland.

Columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige’s reusable bag stuffed with ones that aren’t. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

I love my reusable bags, especially now that I cannot use them at my local Hannaford because the plastics industry has successfully (albeit tenuously) connected them with the spread of COVID-19. News outlets like Mother Jones, Politico and Civil Eats have reported that as early as late February conservative and libertarian think tanks floated the idea that reusable bags could spread the virus. In early March, climate change skeptics started citing small-scale studies linking reusable bags to bacterial spread, though none of the studies specifically link the coronavirus. These posts were followed by a March 18 request from the Plastics Industry Association to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that it endorse single-use plastic bags as the most sanitary option for toting home your groceries.

Then, grocery stores located in towns where plastic bags are banned started telling customers not to bring reusable bags into the store, adding they would waive the usual fee for paper and plastic ones. On March 24, Gov. Janet Mills pushed the start date of the statewide ban on single-use plastic bag from April 22, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, to Jan. 15, 2021.

When asked about the connection between reusable products and COVID-19 conveyance, the Maine Natural Resources Council points folks to an online poster produced by a reputable nonprofit waste reduction organization called UPSTREAM that says the chances of getting the virus from surfaces are “virtually nil.

Massachusetts-based Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project and a Senior Fellow at Conservation Law Foundation, tells shoppers to reject this rejection of reusable bags by refusing any bag offered at the grocery store checkout. Simply have the bagger place the items back into your grocery cart, wheel the cart out to the parking lot, and load them yourself into the reusable bags you’ve left in your car. Don’t forget to wash your hands.

Pecci may be inconvenienced by having to pack her own groceries in the parking lot, but she’s not too worried about the temporary rollback in single-use plastic bag bans. While no hard numbers relating to COVID-19 spread containment measures and the municipal waste stream have been reported yet, Pecci figures that in the short term what plastic bags – and a higher volume of take-out containers – add to the residential waste stream will likely be offset by the decline of institutional food service waste. Pecci worries a lot about the hit municipalities are taking as the COVID-19 crisis has further crushed an already declining market for single-stream recycled glass and plastics. She notes that where municipalities were paying $100/ton in tipping fees to get rid of their recyclables, they are now paying up to $145/ton. And that is before you factor in the costs of curbside recycling collection.

For the long term, individuals, food producers, local businesses, municipalities and state legislators should be working to establish post-COVID systems that both promote good public health and reduce the waste stream, Pecci argues.

Take the reusable bag situation, for example. Why can’t grocery bags work like glass milk bottles? You pay a deposit for a branded bag that you take home filled with groceries. On your next visit to the store, you drop it in a bin on your way in for the store to sanitize and you get your deposit back or use that credit toward another reusable bag when you check out, Pecci explained. This concept could be expanded to a community-wide collective effort where you pay a deposit for a bag (or a coffee cup or a multi-use takeout container) at any one of multiple retailers that could be accepted and sanitized at any other one in the collective.

“When we have an opportunity to set up whole new systems for the safe conveyance of food products, there is no reason why we must settle for systems that include single-use plastics,” Pecci said.

CHRISTINE BURNS RUDALEVIGE is a food writer, recipe developer and tester, and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Strawberry Mint Mojito
I wrote this recipe not because I needed a cocktail at 10 a.m. when the photographer came to take a picture of it, but because now is just about the right time to get local strawberries and mint, meaning you don’t need to worry about plastic packaging. Plus, I used my SodaStream and a refillable bottle to get the bubbles into the glass. And Maine’s bottle bill is considered one of the most effective in the country because it accepts returns on spirits bottles.
Makes 1 drink, plus extra mint syrup

For the Mint Simple Syrup

1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon dried mint

For the Mojito
4 fresh strawberries
1 lime
8 fresh mint leaves, more for garnish
3 tablespoons Mint Simple Syrup
1/4 cup white rum
Ice
Soda water

To make the syrup, combine the sugar and dried mint with one cup water in a 2-quart saucepan. Place the pan over medium heat and stir until sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let the mint steep for 15 minutes. Strain the syrup and set it aside to cool completely.

To make the mojito, cut three of the berries and the lime into quarters. Add the quartered berries and three lime wedges, mint leaves, and mint simple syrup into a 16-ounce high-ball glass. Muddle the mixture until you’ve squeezed out the lime juice, mashed the berries and bruised the mint so that it has released its essential oil, about 30 seconds. Add rum and ice. Top off with soda water and garnish with the remaining strawberry and whole mint leaves.


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