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Wash Your Reusable Shopping Bags

More and more of us are starting to use reusable shopping bags when we go out – and that”s a great thing!  Reusable shopping bags are one of the easiest ways we can do a small thing that makes a big difference. Back in February, we looked at some different options for green goals we can set for this year, and a commitment to reusable shopping bags was #2 on the list, as well as one of the most popular goals you all mentioned.

In fact, a switch to reusable shopping bags can have such a powerful impact that I want to share with you a few statistics I found, just in case you”re not aware how much of a difference you can really make.

Facts About Paper and Plastic Bags

• The average person will use over 350 bags in a single year.

• In 1999, more than 14 million trees were cut down to produce 10 billion paper bags that were used by Americans that year.

• One paper grocery bag requires 1 gallon of water to make (yes, 1 gallon per bag).

• The manufacturing of paper bags actually uses far more resources and creates more pollution than the manufacturing of plastic bags; however, paper bags are compostable and biodegradable.

• Plastic bags never actually biodegrade; instead, they photodegrade, which means the sun breaks them down into tinier and tinier pieces until they eventually mix back into the soil and water, to be consumed by plants, animals, fish – and therefore you and me.

• Plastic bags are produced from petroleum (oil).

• In New York City, one less grocery bag per person would reduce waste by five million pounds and save $250,000 in disposal costs.

As you can see, neither paper nor plastic bags are really better than the other.  The only good answer is reusable bags!

Photo by Annie Mole

Reusable Bags: A Caveat

I give you these statistics because you may not like what you”re going to read next, so I really want you to be convinced of the importance of reusable bags.  🙂

As with many other things Php Aide in life, reusable bags – though the best solution available – are not without problems. There is now evidence that reusable bags used for carrying fresh produce or raw meat may be harboring bacteria from those groceries, such as e. coli and salmonella. If you keep your bags in your car during warm weather, the risk is even greater; these bacteria thrive in heat.  Sounds scary, I know.  But please don”t throw in the towel just yet.

Keep Your Bags Bacteria-Free

Here are a few simple tips for keeping your reusable shopping bags clean and keeping you and your family healthy.

Wash your bags regularly. If you”re like me, you”ve probably never even thought to wash your reusable bags at all.  Eeek.  Yes, get those bags into the wash today!

Don”t store your bags in the car when it”s warm outside – or even when it”s sunny, really.  Perhaps never!  This one will be hard for me; as soon as I unload my groceries, I take my bags straight back out to the car to be used again next time.  Instead, I should take them to the laundry room, wash them, dry them, and then set aside a place for them near the door.

Dry your bags in the sun when you can; sunlight kills bacteria, as many cloth-diapering mamas know.

Designate specific bags for raw meat and for produce, and designate all your reusable grocery bags separately from reusable bags you may have for other purposes, such as clothing or books.

Photo by Artotem

One news article I read said that in other words, we should treat our reusable bags the same way we treat our plates and bowls and glasses after a meal; we wash them and dry them before we use them again.  I”m not sure I will wash my bags every time I use them, but I will definitely begin to wash them regularly, at least on a monthly basis.

What about you? Do you wash your reusable shopping bags? Have you heard of the connection between bacteria and reusable bags?

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  1. Verena

    Oh my… I admit I am deeply in love with interesting & creative blogs from all over the world.
    But lately the outstanding environmental news and announcements on the US-American part keep me laughing all day long…

    The rest of the world realized at least a generation ago that our ancestors’ ways of using naturally grown packing material for all sorts of purposes – including grocery shopping – is the only sensible way. Therefore reusable shopping bags have been a common part of the European shopping culture for a long time.
    In any given household textiles are being cleaned more or less regularly – you change your clothes, your towels, your bedsheets, you wash the curtains and you vacuum the carpets. You clean your outdoor wear – jackets and coats, trousers and shoes, hats, scarves and gloves. You take out your bags as well, and bags get a lot of contact with all sorts of surfaces and the floor. So why would you stop cleaning here? I don’t want to be offensive, but seriously – I wonder why this seems to be breaking news.
    By the way, the kitchen is the biggest health hazard in terms of bacteria, even far worse than the toilet. We should better worry about cleaning kitchen utensils and the fridge regularly and thoroughly if we want to stay healthy.
    In terms of shopping, did you ever think about the pushing pole of a regular shopping cart? You wouldn’t touch every other shopper, right? Not even shake hands with everybody. But how many people have touched that pole? Maybe they had filthy, sweaty, dirty hands. Maybe they didn’t wash them after a visit to the bathroom, did some nosepicking, touched sick people, stroked some animals… According to serious scientific research, that’s where a massive pile of viruses and bacteria is living. The same goes for money and bank notes. And you transmit all that stuff to your groceries when packing your cart with food. Think about it. I consider this far worse than a possibly contaminated bag…
    I am totally aware of the fact that we live in different social cultures, but in the end the same physics go for every human being. Therefore I truely wish we could combine the best of both worlds to get the maximum out of our findings for everybody’s profit and for the benefit of our environment.
    Best regards from Europe, Verena

  2. Tammy

    Interesting post. I have used my re-usable bags from Meijer for over 2 years now and never washed them at all! I don’t think we’ve gotten sick either. And actually I don’t know how well they would wash…they are that composite fabric.

    I never allow the checker to put my meat in the bags though – that is the one thing that comes home in plastic. As for the vegetables, they’re all in plastic bags as well.

    • Nikki Moore

      Tammy – I really am not trying to be rude – but since you use cloth bags and are presumably trying to reduce your plastic waste, why are you using disposable plastic bags for produce? All my produce goes in the same place, the bag, til I get home. (Some dainty things, like mushrooms and of course loose lettuces and such, go into reusable containers I’ve brought with me.) Probably means I need to wash the bag more often, but…it seems like not using plastic is the whole point here. Or is there some other reason I’m not aware of?

      • Tammy

        My end goal is to reduce the amount of plastic bags I bring home, and I feel quite successful in accomplishing that goal.

  3. Kara

    Uh oh. I’ve never washed mine, but I do wipe them down. I also created the habit this year to remember to put them back in my car (guess, I’ll be breaking that one). Today I’m doing laundry, so I think I’ll give my bags a wash while I’m at it!

  4. abbie

    I found a trip through the washing machine just tears apart those cheap reusable bags that you can buy for $1 at the grocery store. So, I started making my own out of light canvas. These hold up really well in the washer, and are able to hold heavy grocery loads too. I always wash my mesh produce bags after one use too.
    I also use a canvas tote bag for my “purse”/diaper bag. It gets bumped, beat up, stuff spills in it, so I just toss it in the wash. Easy peasy way to keep things clean.

    • Katie

      I was wondering how those cheapy bags would hold up in the wash! I have a couple of those and a few canvas bags, so I guess I’ll be making a switch to more canvas, and just using those cheaper ones for non-food-related things.

  5. Shannon

    I love my Chico bags! They fit great in my purse and I throw mine in the wash a few times a month and let them dry on my dryer rack or in the sun. Thanks for this lovely reminder to wash my bag.

  6. Rachel P.

    I promised myself that I would bring up in the comments my problem with reusable shopping bags in the next blog post I saw on the subject. I’m actually sorry it is here, but I feel I should mention it.
    The statistics on the creation of paper and plastic shopping bags are all true. However, there is one important fact that is so often left out I feel it must be mentioned. My dad depends on your use of those bags to feed his family and keep a roof over their head. Many jobs depend on those “disposable” bags and the reduction of their use is causing many paper mills (like the one my dad works at) to cut paychecks and positions. I’m all for saving money and trying to be more responsible, but not at the expense of someone’s livelihood.

    • mrsjs15

      Rachel, I have to agree with you.

      While I think the changes are great for our planet, our health and whole slew of other things, it DOES and WILL hurt some of us. Its always easy to see the positive effects when they are so evident. Its also very easy to miss the negative effects when it doesnt hit close to home.

      Hopefully, we’ll be able to find a way to replace the jobs that are being lost by the green movement – cause the lost jobs will effect all of us on some level or another.

    • Sara

      So you are saying it’s better to save a few jobs than to save the Earth, home of billions of people and many more to come??? We should continue trashing our home with ridiculous single use disposables just so some people can retain their job??? If we don’t take care of the Earth, it won’t take care of us.. there will be no us! To this I have one comment- Get a new job!! Maybe if people refused to work in these Earth trashing places we wouldn’t have these problems in the first place. Sorry to be so abrupt here but the Earth is something I am very passionate about!

  7. Xan at Mahlzeit

    My favorite excuse at the grocery store (from people who admire me for bringing in bags) is “oh, I have some, but I forgot and left them in the car.” What, you can’t turn around and walk back out to your car? Or just put the groceries back in the cart, wheel them out and bag them yourself out there?

    As for, “I’d love to be sustainable, but it will put all the petroleum workers out of work,” please. Once upon a time there was no plastics industry, no paper bags, no whatever. New industries spring up to replace the outdated ones; the solution is not to just keep killing ourselves and our planet, but to work for change that helps people in outmoded industries to start small (sustainable) businesses, to retire early and comfortably, and otherwise to transition to a smarter, safer world.

    • mrsjs15

      Xan – its very easy to pooh-pooh the notion that only some people suffer from our conscientious choices and to point out how we once upon a time didn’t even HAVE the production capabilities we have now.

      But the fact is, there are people out there that ARE suffering from our changes. And while they may be good for the earth as a whole, these changes will effect more than just a few of us as well. Yes, the earth will be better for it, but it will put people out of jobs. The “Oh Please” line is callous. Should you never be in the position of someone whose job was eliminated.

      Fact is, though, YOU TOO are going to be effected by the plastic workers (auto workers, oil workers, etc) loss – you probably already have been. If you’re so lucky to have not felt it, consider yourself lucky. But PLEASE dont oh please those of us who havent been as lucky as you.

      • Xan at Mahlzeit

        I apologize for sounding callous, but my opinion stands. If we make all choice based on NIMBY assessments and their affect on only our own households, nothing can change. Incremental does not work when the problem is this large. The point is not “who cares about petroleum workers” but rather, we need to put petroleum workers out of their jobs; what are we going to do as a society to make that transition work for them, their families and everyone else.

        • Sara

          Xan, I am in complete agreement with you!

          MrsJS, if there were workers (be that pest control through spraying toxic insecticide, or what have you) that came to your house everyday and trashed your yard and home, would you not be upset? You shouldn’t be because they are just doing their job! That is the same as the petroleum and single use items workers are doing.. just not quite so close to home I guess.

          I wish people would think of the long term effects of their actions!

  8. suzannah {so much shouting, laughter}

    washing bags is sensible, however, according to what i’ve read, it’s the chemical/pertroleum industry that funds these studies and issues these scares in the first place, causing the ensuing media frenzy (What Pathogen Is Lurking In Your Travel Mug?? How Reusable Bags Can Make You Sick!!)

    they’re the ones who stand to gain from scaring people away from changing their consumption and lifestyle, and i believe these “health concerns” have been grossly overstated.

  9. Janet

    It had never occurred to me to wash my bags! Eeek! I am conscious of which bags I use for food and which for things like cleaning supplies, and pool chemicals (which are probably another whole area of bad for the environment!) But I will try washing them, and be careful in the future about which one I use for meat.

    Stopping by from Teasingly Diverse’s link today. 🙂

  10. Jennifer

    Surrounding all of the buzz on this topic, we wrote an FAQ on how to clean reusable bags. The best methods vary depending on the material the bag is made out of. We’d also love to hear any ideas that we may have missed. You can see the FAQ at:

    There’s not much information out there on how to keep bags clean–just that you SHOULD keep them clean, so hopefully our FAQ can help some of you out there 🙂

  11. Mark

    Where does the 1 gallon per bag stat come from? Seems a bit over the top?

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  13. Amber

    I had to smile at the non-US person mentioning how disgusting shopping carts are. She’s not kiddin’!! Now that I have a young child, I’ve become increasingly disgusted by seeing people smoking over the carts before they enter a store (do a search on “third hand smoke”), as well as pesticides flags warning of the chemicals in the air and landscaping of stores where I buy certified organic foods/supplies. (These are in shopping centers, so there’s little to be done other than complain to the center’s management and hope others do the same. Grrr.)

    My feeble attempt below against bringing these chemicals into my home, as well as the nastiness of shopping carts Verena mentioned above, is what I’ve done for a long time….

    I bring my bags into the store with me, wipe the handle of the cart with a sanitizer (sometimes stores have these or I use my own eco sanitizer), and fill the bags as I shop. The only problem with this is that I then must put these same items on a conveyor belt that is doubtless quite disgusting as well. It’s my own crazy, somewhat “safer” solution to those nasty carts. 😉

    When I arrive home, I do not take my bags into the kitchen. I place them on unfolded newspapers right inside the door. My child and I then get a little extra exercise carrying the items to the kitchen. I recycle the newspaper, of course, but will now clean my bags every single time rather than toting them back to the car. 😉

    Thanks for an interesting article and for the follow up comments other readers have made. I’d appreciate other ideas like this, too!

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    I think the view here is slightly slanted. I was very surprised to see that almost all of the commenter said that they use reusable bags.I bring in and reuse which is awesome. Some European markets are getting rid of plastic bags all together.

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  19. Iris

    I checked these comments because i’m looking for instructs about washing plastic grocery bags for re-use. The 99 cent bags are no longer washable…even if they’re not they fall apart. I have yet to find canvas bags that are reasonable & no I am not going to sew them myself. Not a lot of sympathy for plastic bag manufacturers losing jobs as I feel about them the same way as tobacco workers. Has anyone reused the plastic bags from grocery stores & or washed them?

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