The One Thing You Aren't Doing with Your Reusable Bags (But Should Be)

By Emily Main

Reusable shopping bags are great for the planet and a boon to anyone who's sick of deciding what to do with piles upon piles upon piles of plastic packaging. But if you aren't washing your reusable bags, you could be toting around more than just a sense of eco-goodwill.

A new study published in Food Protection Trends by Charles Gerba, PhD, a microbiologist at the University of Arizona, found that reusable shopping bags contained large numbers of bacteria, half contained coliform bacteria, and 8 percent contained E. coli. He collected a random sampling of bags from shoppers outside California and Arizona grocery stores, and, through interviews, found out that very few of the bags had ever been washed and were often used for multiple purposes (food, gym clothes, extra shoes, and such). When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria increased tenfold. The good news? Hand- or machine-washing was found to reduce the bacteria in bags by almost 99.9 percent.

The plastic-bag industry likes to use studies like this as an excuse to battle plastic-bag bans in cities around the U.S. that want to get those non-biodegradable eyesores out of stores. But don't fall prey to their scare tactics. You should keep using your reusable bag, provided you take a few steps to keep it clean:

• Wash it regularly and dry it on high heat, or in the sun if possible, to kill lingering germs.
• It's OK to leave your bags in the trunk, provided you wash them before returning them to the trunk to keep any lingering bacteria from proliferating.
• Use bags for food, and food only. If you start to build a collection of reusable bags, make sure you designate which will carry food only, and which are for your dirty gym socks.

Read more about plastic bags on
8 Ways to Reuse Plastic Bags (Until They’re Banned)
Lead in Your Reusable Shopping Bag: Public Health Problem, or Industry Scare Tactic?
5 Products Best Bought in Reusable Containers

Environmental Leader (11 Oct. 2011).
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Note: The Rodale Research Feed features new research findings that may include preliminary or unconfirmed results. Check with a healthcare provider, or an appropriate advisor you trust, before making any significant changes based on these reports.

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