Are reusable grocery bags bad for public health?

reusable grocery bags

Are reusable grocery bags a public health problem, or do we just need to rethink how we care for our reusable bags?

I’ve been seeing stories in my rss reader this week about a new study showing an increase in food-borne illness (pdf) in counties that have a plastic bag ban. The analysis of these studies seems to all lean one way: reusable grocery bags are not healthy. But is that the only way to look at these results?

It makes sense, right? Week after week, you transport food home from the store in your reusable bags. Maybe in between uses, you stash them in your car, so you won’t forget them next time. It’s not surprising that after a while, bacteria starts to grow. Maybe a little bit of that broccoli sheds into the bottom of the bag or that box of crackers that you sneakily busted into on the way home sheds a few crumbs. It’s warm and dark in a reusable bag, a perfect environment for food-borne-illness-causing bacteria to flourish.

Clearly, the only solution is to start using disposable plastic bags then!

Wait a second!

You could make the same argument here for reusable dishes, couldn’t you? If you just stuck your used plate back in the pantry until the next meal, it would also be a breeding ground for bacteria. The lesson from this study isn’t that reusable bags are bad for us, it’s that we need to wash our reusable bags.

How to Wash a Reusable Grocery Bag

How you wash your reusable bag depends on what sort of bag it is. I did a little inventory of the reusable bags in my cupboard, and here are the different sorts I found and how you can wash them:

  • Cotton or polyester – Just toss them in the machine and dry like you would cotton or polyester clothing.
  • Mesh grocery bags – Those cotton mesh bags should have washing instructions on them. If not, machine wash cold and hang them dry. Do not stick these in the dryer! I did this once, and the bag lost all of its stretch!
  • Plastic reusable bags – These are a little stiffer, so turning them inside out is the best way to make sure they get washed thoroughly. They should be fine on a gentle, cold wash cycle, then hang them up to dry.
  • Poly bags with a plastic insert – Some reusable bags has a plastic insert in the bottom to hold their shape. I wouldn’t run this through the washing machine. Just pull the plastic out (it’s usually removable), wash the bag in the machine, and use hot, soapy water to hand-wash the insert.

Do you guys have other sorts of reusable grocery bags that you’re not sure how to wash? Comment away!

Image Credit: Reusable Grocery Bag photo via Shutterstock

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