There is no denying the many merits of reusable bags, from the environmental impact to the cost savings for both the stores that supply disposable bags and the municipalities that pick up litter. Reusable shopping bags definitely are a step in the right direction on many fronts, but they require some care and attention. If not properly cared for reusable bags can possibly nurture and spread bacteria. A few studies have been done on the issue and while the amounts of bacteria found were minimal, exposure is all it takes to become ill. Remember to bring your bags every time you go to the store and keep them clean.
Before you need to concern yourself with washing your reusable shopping bags you need to remember to use them. If you are new to reusable bags it can take a while to get into the habit of remembering to bring your bags to the store or market. To jog your memory try storing your bags by the front door or in your car to keep them handy when you go shopping, it may also be useful to keep a reusable bag or two in your desk at work in case you run to the store on your lunch break or after work. Write a reminder note to bring your bags on your shopping list or post a note someplace where you will see it, like on your refrigerator or your door. If you know you are going shopping at a specific time, like right after you get out of work, try programming a reminder in your phone or set your watch to beep at about the time you should arrive at the store. Bear in mind that it takes time to make a habit and everyone who uses reusable bags has had to make a run to their car at one point or another to grab their forgotten bags.
Decoding the Results
There have been a few studies on the health effects of reusable bags. One of the more publicized studies was conducted by the University of Arizona, Tucson and Loma Linda University in California. This study was partially funding by the American Chemistry Council, an organization that has been a vocal opponent of plastic bag bans. While the findings of this study are flawed due to the extremely small sample size and the questionable involvement of the most well-known anti-reusable bag group, the grain of usefulness that can be pulled from it is that bacteria are everywhere, including your reusable bags. This particular study found trace amounts of bacteria, including e. coli on the bags tested. The odds of you becoming ill from the bacteria on your reusable bags are not that great, but this is not something anyone should set out to test. Err on the side of caution and wash your reusable bags. Produce and meat carry bacteria and you should wash your bags for the same reason you wash produce and clean surfaces that come into contact with uncooked meat.
Cleaning your Reusable Bags
Make sure to regularly clean your eco-friendly bags. Bacteria can grow on the bags, especially those that come into contact with produce and other raw foods. Also take care that juice from meat packaging can leak and be absorbed into the material. When these fluids and bacteria stew, say in the warm trunk of a car, they can potentially incubate dangerous strains of bacteria, such as e. coli and salmonella. Follow any washing instructions on the bag and if there are no directions base your care around the material. Cotton, hemp, jute, and polyester can usually go in the washing machine. If the material is loosely woven you may want to set the cycle to delicate or gentle. If your bag is screen-printed or dyed wash it by hand in warm soapy water. Polypropylene should be hand washed in cold water with antibacterial soap and line dried. You can toss your polypropylene or RPET bag in the washing machine, but make sure to use cold water and do not follow up with a spin in the dryer. Heat can possibly melt the material. Bear in mind that machine washing will limit the life of your polypropylene bag, so you may need to replace your bags more often if you clean with this method. Hand washing material constructed from recycled plastics definitely ensures that it lasts longer. When in doubt hand wash your bags. It may take a little bit longer but you will be sure to not damage your bags. Regular washing whether by hand or machine kills bacteria, giving you peace of mind.
Dedicated Reusable Bags
To further protect your family use dedicated bags for produce, meat, and dairy. Reusable grocery bags are designed to be big and durable. The idea is that you can pack more goods in each bag, so ultimately you will need fewer reusable bags to do the job. It can be tempting to toss as much as possible in a reusable bag, but try to group similar foods together and always use the same bag for each food group. You still need to clean your bags, but if you devote bags to specific food types you do not need to worry about cross contamination. So e. coli from lettuce you bought is not transferred to a box of cereal or the jar of tomato sauce you also picked up. It is common practice to wash produce, but you may not wash canned
Taking care of your reusable bags can be quick and easy and can save your family from germs and bacteria. The more you wash your bags the less chance there is of spreading bacteria. If you have the time to clean you bags after each use that's great, but if not try to set aside time one a week or maybe every other week to wash your bags.goods that if packed in the same bag as fruits, vegetables or meats can pick up germs and bacteria; and you cannot wash boxed items. Dedicated bags eliminate the chance of cross contamination. To keep your bags straight consider labeling each one so you remember which bag is for meats and which bag is for dairy and so on. Supermarket baggers make sure to divvy products up by type so learn from their example.
For more information on how to care for your reusable bags check out http://dpw.lacounty.gov/epd/aboutthebag/tips.cfm, http://www.grandforksherald.com/event/article/id/226710/, and http://news.consumerreports.org/safety/2010/07/can-reusable-grocery-bags-make-you-sick-or-is-that-just-baloney.html.