Sunday, December 12, 2010

New York News: Even Reusable Bags Carry Environmental Risk

image by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
Shelley Kempner of Queens, who was shopping at Fairway on the Upper West Side on Sunday, said she liked "the idea of not putting more plastic into the environment."

Published: November 14, 2010

They dangle from the arms of many New Yorkers, a nearly ubiquitous emblem of empathy with the environment: synthetic, reusable grocery bags, another must-have accessory for the socially conscious.

But the bags, hot items at upscale markets, may be on the verge of a glacier-size public relations problem: similar bags outside the city have been found to contain lead.

“They say plastic bags are bad; now they say these are bad. What’s worse?” asked Jen Bluestein, who was walking out of Trader Joe’s on the Upper West Side with a reusable bag under her arm on Sunday.

“Green is a trend and people go with trends,” Ms. Bluestein said. “People get them as fashion statements and they have, like, 50 of them. I don’t think people know the real facts.”

There is no evidence that these bags pose an immediate threat to the public, and none of the bags sold by New York City’s best-known grocery stores have been implicated. But reports from around the country have trickled in recently about reusable bags, mostly made in China, that contained potentially unsafe levels of lead. The offending bags were identified at several stores, including some CVS pharmacies; the Rochester-based Wegman’s grocery chain recalled thousands of its bags, made of recycled plastic, in September.

Concerns have proliferated so much that Senator Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, sent a letter on Sunday to the Food and Drug Administration, urging the agency to investigate the issue.

Reusable bags have maintained their popularity even amid charges that they become hothouses for bacteria. The recent studies, none of which were conducted by the government, found that the lead in some bags would pose a long-term risk of seeping into groundwater after disposal; over time, however, paint from the bag could flake off and come into contact with food.

Climate-change-conscious shoppers at one of Manhattan’s culinary meccas on Sunday said they were chagrined that yet another good intention had gone awry.

“Bummer! We’re still not doing the right thing,” said Shelley Kempner of Queens, who was looking over the produce at Fairway on Broadway at West 74th Street. She prefers a reusable bag, she said, because she “likes the idea of not putting more plastic into the environment.”

Told of the recent lead findings, Ms. Kempner sighed — “It’s still not good enough” — and wondered if she would have to switch to something else. “Are we going to have to start using string?” she asked.

“There’s always something wrong with everything,” said Barry Lebost, standing outside the Trader Joe’s on West 72nd Street with four reusable bags filled with groceries.

But Mr. Lebost, an alternative energy consultant, did not appear fazed by the revelations of lead. He said his home, in Gardiner, N.Y., had been outfitted with a hydroelectric plant that saved the energy equivalent of 200 plastic bags a day. “It may not be a total solution, but this is a step in the right direction,” he said of the suddenly suspect bags at his feet. “The fluorescent bulbs we have now, they’re no good because they have mercury in them. You look at it as a transition.”

But many shoppers said they would continue relying on the bags until more information came out. The bags are usable for years, they said, and any long-term effects of lead may be offset by the environmental benefits gained by not using regular plastic bags.

“I wasn’t planning on throwing it out, so that’s a positive thing,” said Catherine Paykin, standing by the meat counter at Fairway. “As long as I use it and don’t throw it away, that will be my plan.”

Mr. Schumer’s family also shops at Fairway. A spokesman for the senator said the family planned to bring the issue to the attention of the store to see if the bags there were affected.