'Smiling torture': Infuriated Coles shopper suggests radical new bagging plan

A woman angered by Coles staff refusing to pack bags has suggested the supermarket return to single-use plastic bags to avoid coronavirus contamination.

The woman, a resident of Busselton in Western Australia, wrote on Facebook on Monday questioning when the supermarket was going to start packing bags again.

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Coles has asked customers to pack their own bags to stop the spread of COVID-19 but it’s angered some people who want staff to do it for them.

“I hate shopping at the best of times. Now the service is more like smiling torture,” she wrote.

“Seriously it’s a cop out anyway. I’ve freshly touched all the items I load onto the belt at least twice anyway. So, it’s a load of crock.

“If Coles believed in actual service, you would’ve just made plastic bags free again for COVID-19.”

Shoppers are seen waiting outside a Coles supermarket at Firle in Adelaide.
Coles has brought in a number of measures to encourage social distancing. Source: AAP

In its response, Coles wrote it has “added measures to make it easier” for staff and customers to observe social distancing inside our stores.

“One of those measures is asking our customers to pack their own bags, whether bought or brought, to minimise both handling and close contact time,” it wrote.

‘They may as well pack it’

Other people echoed the woman’s sentiment – angry they have to pack their own shopping bags.

“They touch our shopping when they scan it so they may as well pack it,” one woman wrote.

Another woman questioned if a staff member behind the counter “touches everything” then “why can’t they pack groceries?”

However, not everyone was sympathetic.

“Stop complaining,” one woman wrote.

Shoppers are seen at Coles in Earlwood, in Sydney.
Shoppers leave with groceries from Coles at Sydney's suburb of Earlwood during the pandemic. Source: AAP

Another woman, claiming to work in a supermarket before the pandemic, wrote she had to pack a number of “disgusting bags” before coronavirus hit.

“I had come across to one that had brown wet muck at the bottom,” she wrote.

“I’m glad they stopped and you should pack your own if you are going to bring disgusting bags. It’s not fair on the staff to have to touch your crap.”

So, is packing a reusable plastic bag during this pandemic harmful to staff? Or would returning to single use plastics for the duration of the pandemic be beneficial? What possible impacts would this have on our environment?

Shopping bags: the ‘very unlikely route’ of transmission

Professor Archie Clements, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Health Sciences at Curtin University, told Yahoo News Australia there isn’t much evidence “either way” that packing bags could lead to wider coronavirus community transmission.

“If an individual is touching everyone’s bags, then there might be some risk of transmission, but really the main risk would be from someone coughing or sneezing and spreading the virus, or people coming into contact with a high-touch surface (like a shopping trolley handle) and then touching their face prior to sanitising their hands,” Professor Clements said.

He added “it really comes down to common sense”.

University of Queensland virologist Professor Ian Mackay added “there’s no evidence” he’s aware of, of anyone contracting the virus from contact “with a contaminated shopping bag”.

“In Australia there are clearly very few cases anywhere, so the risk is already very much lower than overseas,” Professor Mackay said.

“Apart from an absence of evidence – for or against – in my opinion this is a very unlikely route of acquisition.

“Because of all this, details about the nature of the bag don't really matter. Keep using reusable bags. Keep washing your hands after shopping. Unpack groceries. Wash your hands again.”

Professor Mackay said people can keep washing reusable bags if they’re really concerned.

‘Staff touch items, why can’t they pack my bag?’

Staff are often seen packing shelves and handling items in store including ones which may have been touched by shoppers.

So, why can’t they touch bags which have also been held by shoppers?

Professor Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, explained products being touched on shelves are handled by just a few people.

Those people are store staff and “those up the supply chain”, who have safe handling protocols in place, Professor Bennett said.

Grocery and plastic shopping bags seen in Brisbane.
Supermarkets got rid of single-use plastic bags, such as these ones seen in Brisbane, in 2018. Source: AAP

“Occasionally a customer may briefly handle and replace an item on the shelf. The chance of you contracting COVID-19 from handling items is extremely small if practicing good hand hygiene and not putting hands to face,” she said.

“COVID-19 is found on surfaces, and can sit longer on some surfaces than others, but with hygiene measures in place the risk to you of having an infecting dose is very small, even if someone who was positive had handled the item relatively recently.”

Professor Bennett added people packing their own bags is a “good way to minimise contact” and means the staff don’t have to handle bags that have been in close contact with the customer and for longer periods than items handled in store.

“I personally want to see reusable bags continuing to be the norm for all the sustainability reasons that motivated us to move to this in the first place. Asking customers to pack their own bags is a small price to pay to allow us to be both safe and sustainable,” she said.

A sign, seen in a Coles supermarket, advises its customers of its plastic bag free in Sydney on July 2, 2018.
A sign in July 2018 tells Coles shoppers it's no longer using single-use plastic bags. Source: Getty Images

Should supermarkets hand out reusable bags for free?

Dr Edward Narayan, from the University of Queensland’s School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, told Yahoo News Australia bringing back single use plastics or handing out reusable bags for free “is a no go zone”.

“We’d be digging our own grave,” Dr Narayan said.

“It could be very damaging and could create far deeper problems beyond COVID-19.

“We’ve also been working years to stop single use plastics.”

A customer is seen using a Woolworths re-useable plastic bag at Woolworths George Street, Sydney.
We shouldn't consider giving away reusable bags or encouraging the use of single use bags, according to experts. Source: AAP (file pic)

Dr Narayan explained the flow-on effect of bringing back single-use plastics – even for the interim.

He conceded while we’re currently in a “very difficult situation” people need to look at the big picture.

“Some of these bags can take up to 500 years to disintegrate,” Dr Narayan said.

“Some can also convert into micro-plastics which get swallowed up by marine creatures.”

Dr Narayan said plastics also block waterways and when that occurs it can lead to more mosquitos, which carry various diseases.

“It could lead to COVID-20,” he said.

“Consumers have to be aware and organised. For short-term happiness at the checkout we could be sacrificing our long-term personal health along with that of our environment.”

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