Like Everything Else In Life, Reusable Shopping Bags Are Full Of Gross Bacteria

A new study says that you should be washing your reusable shopping bags because they might be full of gross bacteria such as e. coli, particularly if you used them to tote raw meat.

The University of Arizona study tested 84 bags collected from shoppers in Tucson, LA and SF. Over half were contaminated with potentially harmful bacteria. 12% apparently contained e. coli.

The National Resources Defense Council calls the study “industry-funded junk science designed to scare consumers,” but the scientist, who got $30,000 from the American Chemistry Council for the study, says people just need to wash their bags and realize they can cross contaminate food.

The American Chemistry Council, according to their website, “represents the leading companies engaged in the business of chemistry, including significant business groups such as the Plastics Division, the Chlorine Chemistry Division, and the Chemical Products and Technology Division.”

Anyway, we suppose the takeaway is that in order to save the planet you may need to occasionally wash your meat bags! That sounded so gross, we’re sorry.

Reusable bags may present health risk [Arizona Republic]


Edit Your Comment

  1. ShruggingGalt says:

    I take it this wasn’t taken into consideration when San Fran and other towns (and Austin too, pending review) banned plastic bags? That might bring down the “true costs” of plastic bags.

    • JamieSueAustin says:

      Realistically, how much extra is it going to cost you to throw a couple of bags in with a load of towels?

      • BuyerOfGoods3 says:

        She may have meant potential lawsuits for people getting sick because of cross contamination; you don’t know where anyone elses bag has been (except for on the same counter yours is, touching the same baggers hands). I’m not a clean freak, but some people are. There are always new costs to replace the old (ie, plastic bags). It’ll be a wash.

        I like paper anyway.

      • Emperor Norton I says:

        I really doubt that the bags will survive more than once, if that, in the wash, especially in a top loader machine with an agitator.
        All of these bags are made in China & are typical Chinese crap!
        I’ve had these bags fall apart during their first use & they weren’t overloaded.

        • Brunette Bookworm says:

          Then you are buying cheap bags. I have a few different kinds. I’ve washed the Envirosax and the fabric bags just fine. Some of the bags are made out of cheap material that you can’t wash well but spend a few bucks more and get washable ones. I just washed mine this weekend with the laundry.

    • spamtasticus says:

      I use them but have a black one for the meat and a green one for the veggies and fruit. The tan ones are for everything else. Just wash them from time to time.

      • MauriceCallidice says:

        Ah yes, so just the raw meat gets cross-contaminated with each successive use. Much better.

  2. tasselhoff76 says:

    I often now see reusable shopping bags made from some type of plastic and I never know if you can actually wash them.

  3. FatLynn says:

    At my local stores, they give me the option of wrapping the deli counter meat a second time before putting it into my reusable bag.

  4. GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

    I do use reusable shopping bags when I shop, because my one store gives me $.05 for every bag I use. That said, for grocery items, I use Home Depot bags, because they roll up, can carry 30lbs of rice, and the handles are long enough you can sling it over your shoulder. For meat(s), I use a canvas bag, mostly because they are washable. But do I? Not really unless they get covered in blood, because when I hang them to dry, the cats won’t leave them alone.

    You really want to be scared? Think of your cashier handling a package of meat, then touching the bag holder and running their finger over the edges of ten+ bags to get that one open. Since plastic allows bacteria growth, and those bags stay humid, there is a bigger “danger” there.

    rant/ What really gets my goat is when you are like me, and place stuff on the belt in the order/groups you bag them in, and there is some charity bagging that you don’t realize because they walked over when you started ringing up, and you then have to unbag everything and re-bag it because A) they didn’t use your bags, and B) you are OCD about how your stuff is bagged. /rant

    • Sure I could agree with you, but then we'd BOTH be wrong. says:

      In California, nobody bags their own groceries. (I’m originally from New York, where I am used to bagging my own, and when I started doing it here, the checkers were offended, and the people on line were getting antsy because it took too long)

      Now I just let them do it, unless I use the self checkout lines.

      • hypochondriac says:

        Where in NY do you bag you own groceries? I live in NYC and never had to bag my own groceries.

        • msbask says:

          I don’t think you ever have to, but I usually do it anyway. I’m on Long Island and shop at Pathmark, King Kullen, ShopRite, Waldbaums, Stop & Shop.

      • MaxPower says:

        If you go to bargain supermarkets, they don’t have baggers so they can offer lower prices. You don’t have as much of a selection though.

    • Rachacha says:

      That is why I like self checkout lines at the grocery store, not so much because I am OCD, but because I can bag groceries in a way that will make it easier to put the groceries away when I get home.

      Items for the pantry in one bag, items for the refrigerator in another bag, meat for the freezer in a third bag etc…

      • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

        Where I shop, there is a little shelf w/2-3 bag holders already set up, so if you have a big order, you have to keep all the bags on that shelf or else the system locks up and you need the cashier covering it to keep hitting “ok”.

  5. Noadi says:

    Wait, there are people who don’t wash their cloth grocery bags? I toss mine in the laundry if I’ve carried anything perishable in it in case there was some leakage.

    • sparrowmint says:

      Yes. When I worked as a cashier, people would bring in the most disgusting bags with caked on mystery… stuff (and this wasn’t in a town where plastic bags were banned/had extra fees), that we were of course expected to touch and fill with food. People can be really disgusting.

      • Not Given says:

        The ones I’ve seen for sale around here seem to be made of some kind of plastic that doesn’t loook like it would stand up to washing.

  6. savvy9999 says:

    I would suggest having a meat-only bag (make it red?) with which to portage our thick, delicious slabs of bloody flesh from market to home, and just washing that one well after every use.

    I am soooooo grilling out tonight.

  7. chiieddy says:

    After each use, we wash our bags in the ‘sanitize’ cycle on our washer. For insulated bags, we disinfect with a bleach/water solution after cleaning out with dish soap.

  8. MaytagRepairman says:

    I’m wondering how this compares to say counter tops or cutting boards found in the same homes.

    • Rachacha says:

      Or sponges. My wife thinks I am a crazy person for throwing the kitchen sponge in the dishwasher periodically, but when it comes out, ,it is clean and smells fresh.

      • JamieSueAustin says:

        I don’t have a dishwasher so I microwave them for five or so minutes in a bowl of water. Keeps the funk out of them and lets me use them longer.

  9. Tim says:

    Yes … like most things that come in contact with bacteria, you have to either clean it every once in a while or discard it.

    Also, Meg, you can be a little more straight-forward with your description of the American Chemistry Council. It’s a special interest group for the companies that make disposable plastic bags. They paid for a study that shows a downside to something that threatens their business. Whoa now.

  10. Tim says:

    Also, the article says that the study “raises the question of what is more environmentally friendly: using cloth bags that must be washed regularly with water and detergent, or using thin plastic or paper bags that often end up in the streets or landfills instead of recycling?”

    Umm. Assuming you don’t dedicate an entire wash cycle to a few bags, I’m going to say reusable bags.

    • Eyebrows McGee (now with double the baby!) says:

      Which is more friendly to the environment, reusable “clothes” you have to wash regularly, thus destroying Mother Earth, or our awesome wear-once-and-throw-away plastisuits that you don’t have to waste precious, precious water washing but sit harmlessly in a landfill bothering nobody after a single wearing? I THINK YOU KNOW THE ANSWER.

      • Rachacha says:

        What if you reuse those plastisuits multiple times, once for that really nice dinner for the initial wearing, a second time to meet a friend for lunch, a third time to go to the store, and a forth time to take out the trash.

        Of course I jest, but if you have a “throw away” plastic shopping bag and reuse them multiple timesto carry your lunch to work, bring clothes to the gym, books to school etc. before using them as a trash bag or recycling them at the grocery store where they are ground up and used to make new plastic bags, as compared with washing and reusing cloth or reusable plastic bags dumping gallons of detergent into our water systems and using precious water resources, the question of which becomes better for the environment becomes a little fuzzier.

        I don’t know which is better, but it is something to consider.

        • Tim says:

          You’ve got a point, but I’m willing to bet only 5 or 10% of disposable plastic bags get a second use out of them, then maybe 1% of those get a third use. Then recycled? That’s even more of a stretch.

          Whenever a jurisdiction tries to curb the use of disposable plastic bags, the American Chemistry Council comes out with its recycling campaign thing. They say it’s far better to keep bags plentiful and free, and then let stores choose whether they want to allow recycling and let consumers choose whether or not to recycle. It sounds all ‘Merikin because of choice and all, but when it comes down to it, very few people do it.

          • zifnab0 says:

            So how often do the reusable bags get used? How much environmental damage does it do to wash them? (it’s certainly something) How much energy goes into their production?

            Then compare that to plastic bags.

            It seems that no one is actually doing this comparison, just attacking the American Chemistry Council (which obviously has an interest in the debate) and saying that obviously reusable bags are better. But at least they’re trying to make a valid comparison. Until someone else comes along and does an unbiased (or oppositely-biased) comparison, it’s all we have to go on.

            I’m still not convinced that plastic bags are worse for the environment than reusable bags, whether canvas or (heavier) plastic.

          • VeganPixels says:

            You could come to my house and be 100% wrong about that 5-10%. Also, no dead animal leakage to contend with.

    • evnmorlo says:

      You throw your e. coli bags in with your clothes?

      • JamieSueAustin says:

        You eat with the same hands you handle raw meat with? Washing is washing, you’re clothes won’t get infected by e.coli just because you washed a bag with them.

        I wash mine with my towels. I’m more concerned about the color of the bags bleeding on my clothes than I am about e.coli.

        • MauriceCallidice says:

          When you wash your hands the total volume of water gets exchanged and replaced dozens or even hundreds of times, with the soap gradually aiding in carrying away dirt and germs with it. In a typical washer, the total volume of water is drained and replaced about 2-3 times. Somewhat different.

          If you washed your hands by dipping them in bowl of water for a while, than another bowl a while longer, then shaking them off, the analogy would be more apt.

      • varro says:

        Uh, do you know what the “coli” in e. coli means? Some of it ends up on your stanky drawers, no matter how careful you are when you wipe.

  11. dreamcatcher2 says:

    It’s important to note that this is not a useful analysis of the implications of using re-usable bags, it’s simply a headline-grabber story that we’ve seen a hundred times before. The story goes “OMG, we swabbed stuff, and it had BACTERIA on it!” Guess what: bacteria is everywhere. You probably have staph aureus on your skin, and a surprisingly large percentage of the population actually has the deadly MRSA variant on their skin right at this very moment. Yet, somehow most of us manage to go through each day without being eaten alive by bacteria.

    This study is merely a preliminary exercise that presents no useful conclusions, it merely suggests follow-up research may be necessary. The media circus that follows is irresponsible and creates a story where none exists.

    A serious study would look at whether or not using re-usable plastic bags has any detrimental effect on health. This exploratory study has shown that 12% of reusable bags may have e-coli – now, when controlling for other known risk factors, do reusable bag owners contract e coli at a higher rate? Now that would be something writing an article about, and posting to the consumerist.

  12. HowdyHowdyHowdy says:

    What about washable totes? I use those. Hell, they’re 10 bucks each compared to the recycled-reusable 99¢, but they last a lot longer and well, they’re washable.

  13. Daverson says:

    Hang the bags in the sun on a clothesline. The UV will take care of the bacteria.

  14. momtimestwo says:

    Just have a cotton bag for meat and a bag for produce and wash them every once and a while. I use cloth napkins and kitchen towels so they get washed with the bags.

  15. dg says:

    Don’t most grocery stores have a roll of plastic bags to “double bag” the meat in? Take the package and put it in one of those. Then that goes in your reusable bag…

    FWIW – I’m not using those reusable bags. We get paper bags, use them for our recyclable trash. Plastic bags that we get from here and there get recycled too…

    • nbs2 says:

      If you’re double bagging the meat, how is that any different than just putting that same meat in a plastic bag?

      • Niphil says:

        Usually they’re smaller sized bags, like the ones you would use to put vegetables in. Double bagging = in the meat bag, then in the reusable.

    • GuyGuidoEyesSteveDaveâ„¢ says:

      But unless you wash each hand as you double bag it, the outer bag will get some meat package juice on it. It’s one of these situations where you have to hope your parents didn’t raise you in a bubble.

      • dg says:

        Honestly, I usually just grab it by the edge of the package where it’s not wet and slimey… Or there’s usually some paper towels around that I can use, and most of the aisles have some purell at the end as a result of the recent swine flu pandemic…

  16. Clyde Barrow says:

    I always toss the plastic bags into the garbage that carried either my milk or meat products. And because I’ve never gotten e coli or sick from the use of these bags, this scare tactic seems stupid. There is always a chance for anything to happen to me but I am going to live inside a bubble worrying about it.

  17. scoosdad says:

    I wonder how they convinced 84 people to just turn over their reusable bags for this study.

    I can imagine a scene out of “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” (the liver donor scene):

    (knock at the door)

    Resident: Who is it?

    Gruff voice outside door: I’ve come for your bag….

    Resident: But I’m still using it!

  18. KyBash says:

    You do realize that washing machines aren’t sterilizers — some of the contamination will remain even after repeated washings. A really bad place is the seams — they don’t dry as quickly/throughly as the rest of the bag, and bacteria love warm, moist dark places.

    You should also think about what you’re doing to your clothes — everything from onion skins to asparagus sap has long been used to dye cloth. The amounts of residue in a bag won’t turn your whites brown in a single washing, but the effect is cummulative.

    That’s assuming, of course, you’re okay with the fact that cloth shopping bags rape the planet — more petrochemicals are used in just growing and harvesting the cotton than are present in a lifetime of plastic bags, and that’s before you add in the water pollution from processing the cotton or the slave-wage labor involved in the spinning, weaving, and sewing.

    • mbz32190 says:

      There is probably more bacteria on the grocery belt than the bags. I have yet to wash my bags. But I always have meat bagged or wrapped separate, then put that into a reusable bag if there is space.

    • PietroCrazy says:

      Just curious, but do you have any source for any of this?

    • Brunette Bookworm says:

      Or you could get recycled cotton bags…

  19. ronbo97 says:

    No mention of the third option: paper bags. I will always go this route. There’s no concern about cross-contamination since they are reused as garbage bags and readily degrade in a landfill.

    If I were to use a reusable bag, I would have to wash it after just about every use. How much energy would that use up ?

  20. gman863 says:

    My dad spent 10 weeks in the hospital from an infection after minor surgery.

    After talking with a few of his doctors about all the ways e.coli and other serious infections can be spread, I only use reusable bags for non-perishable items (canned goods, soap, etc.).

    Meat, produce, dairy or anything refrigerated/frozen goes in an disposable bag.

  21. pollyannacowgirl says:

    Honestly, this sounds like a lot of scare hype. Twelve percent is not a lot. And what are the chances that a person with e. coli on their bag would actually get sick? Compared to getting sick from the e. coli that’s on everything else?

    My first thought on reading this story is to make sure my immune system is in good working order.

  22. venomroses says:

    This is really a “no duh” type of story….but unfortunately there really are people out there who don’t wash their bags and they (the bags) are completely disgusting.

    This reminds me of this one segment i watched (i can’t remember what channel or whatever), they were swabbing people’s flip flops to show just how gross they were.

  23. xantheose says:

    I regularly wash my re-usable bags (and also change my dishcloths, and kitchen towels daily). There is very likely to be E coli in your laundry already – fecal contamination from underwear, tracked in from the outdoors, etc.

    Lots of people re-use plastic grocery bags, without much attention to their previous contents. How many of the plastic-boosters raising the alarm bells about re-usable bags take scrupulous care not to re-use (without washing) dishes and utensils that have been in contact with raw meat? How many wash their hands before eating, after handling money, after using bathrooms etc?

  24. Sumtron5000 says:

    I just throw my bags into the washing machine when I’m doing a load. Doesn’t everyone know that you should clean anything that touched raw meat??
    The headline says it all: “Like Everything Else In Life.” Don’t be afraid of reusable bags because of this. Isn’t pretty much everything covered in bacteria and germs and crap?

  25. Ben says:

    I don’t buy meat, so I’m not worried. I’ll probably wash by bags anyway, though.

  26. moonbunnychan says:

    I work in a department store, and I can tell you I HATE these things. I bring plastic gloves with me now when I’m working registers because almost all of them that I’ve handled have been just vile and disgusting. I don’t think most people wash them ever.

    Also as an interesting side note, people at my store are also using them to shoplift like crazy, since people bring the bags in with them as opposed to getting a bag on the way out.