Clean those reusable shopping bags
June 15th, 2011
11:25 AM ET

Clean those reusable shopping bags

More and more of us are trying to live greener. We buy organic, we recycle. We even are being encouraged to use our own bags when we shop. It's all an effort to avoid waste and save the planet. But now, one of those planet saving efforts apparently comes with its own set of problems. Those reusable bags, if not handled correctly, might actually cause consumers harm.

On Tuesday the Canadian health department issued an environmental advisory to make sure consumers use the bags correctly. It recommends cleaning the bags and doing it often.  The Canadian health department found that bacteria and other things were living and growing in those consumer friendly bags – things we really don't want around our food, or our family.

A study done in 2009 by Dr. Richard Summerbell, research director at Toronto based Sporometrics, uncovered that many bags have bacteria, mold, yeast and even some more disgusting stuff in them.

And those unwelcome bag bugs can cause some very unpleasant things.
The first risk is food poisoning, but other issues include skin infections like boils, allergic reactions, asthma attacks and even ear infections.

But before you ditch the reusable and go back to land fill loving plastic bags there is one thing you need to know: The study was funded by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council or EPIC. So basically the plastic people paid for it. This shouldn't invalidate the guidelines, but also shouldn't overly scare you about using those reusable bags either.

Just like you wash sheets and towels, wash your re-usable bags. And wash them often, either in warm water or with a mild bleach and water mixture. Also make sure you wash the counter tops where you put those same bags because if it lives on the bags it can live on your counters.

When you shop, if possible, separate your goods by putting fruit in one bag for instance and meats in another. Things that leak, like packaged meats probably need another wrapping to be on the safe side. But keep in mind even those precautions might not do the trick as bacteria can be transferred by the store bagging clerk from one reusable bag to another.

soundoff (62 Responses)
  1. Brett

    This is certainly a ploy by the plastics industry. You could run the same tests on your couch, chair, matress, kitchen sink or any number of other things you interact with on a more frequent basis and probably get worse results. Periodically washing the bags is probably a good idea, just like washing your sheets, clothes or yourself is a good idea, but "suggesting" that environmentally friendly reusable bags are dangerous is silly. One should note that if buying reuseable bag, buy ones that do not have the large painted on logos/lettering as they contain significant amounts of lead. Google "lead free reuseable bags" for places to find them.

    June 15, 2011 at 11:54 | Report abuse | Reply
    • A Rothman

      But I don't eat my couch. I do eat the food that the bag held.

      June 15, 2011 at 15:32 | Report abuse |
    • StevenR

      A ploy by the plastics industry for sure.

      But PLEASE people, get a handle on "dangerous". You are around germs ALL THE TIME. Of COURSE there are germs on a grocery bag. There are germs on EVERYTHING.

      But most germs are good for you, assuming you are reasonably healthy. What is UNSAFE are the antimicrobial chemicals built into EVERYTHING these days (try to find a soap that doesn't have them, I dare you).

      Make the bags mandatory and BAN the antimicrobial products. We will ALL be safer.

      June 15, 2011 at 17:22 | Report abuse |
    • GeneO

      They might want to inoculate their petri dishes using college student backpacks, and then start to feel better about the shopping bags. Semesters of yuck enough to culture up mass hysteria and the shut down all of higher education

      June 15, 2011 at 18:31 | Report abuse |
    • gingerpeach

      When I was a clerk, I found that some of the bags brought on a asthma attack and some made the arm I put the food in the bag with, break out. So yea please wash the bags. It got to where I was in dred of having to use those bags.

      June 15, 2011 at 19:05 | Report abuse |
    • Rog

      A good point A Rothman.

      Also unless you are a total slob one doesn't potentially have juices from raw meat on places like their couch. Brett's assumptions are just empty statements without any backing.

      June 15, 2011 at 20:35 | Report abuse |
    • engnrjim

      the average reuseable bag weighs 423 times as much as a disposable bag. Tthe disposable bag is used an average of twice. that equalls a needed 846 usages on the reusable bag just to break even. That almost never occours. REUSEABLE bags actually add to landfill waste.

      June 16, 2011 at 07:15 | Report abuse |
    • fatdawg

      engnrjim..... what does the weight of the reusable bag have to do with anything ?

      June 16, 2011 at 09:47 | Report abuse |
    • Goat of Evil

      On the plus side, if there actually are deadly bacteria on these bags, then the resulting decrease in the human population will be good for the environment.

      June 16, 2011 at 10:22 | Report abuse |
    • Displeased

      engnrjim, do you work for the plastic industry? The number of plasitc bags that equal a reusable bag in regards to weight doesn't matter. It still takes thousands of years for plastic to break down, unlike a cloth bag.

      As far as the people who claim they don't eat off their couch or won't use cloth bags because they're dirty...wouldn't the shopping carts and baskets that you put your food in be just as dirty? You do wash your food, right?

      June 16, 2011 at 10:44 | Report abuse |
    • Larry051967

      You day you don't eat off your couch. Wrong. If you sit on the couch the "germs" will make it to your mouth and nose. If washing the bags were that important just think of all the people that would be dead by now. Eating a strawberry you dropped in the gutter is no more dangerous than eating the strawberry you purchased at the grocery store or the farmer's market. The dangers to be worried about are the bug sprays, chemicals (including those used for sanitation), additives and processing methods not the germs that share the world with us every day. If you're really worried just get closer to your local farmer's market and butcher shop.Consume food that was grown and raised as close to your home as practical. Don't eat anything that has been sprayed, enhanced, processed or precooked if you can avoid it. All that kind of stuff is to increase the bottom line and allow food processors to use ingredients they could not possibly sell in their natural form.

      June 16, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse |
  2. Douglas Lober

    I absolutely agree that this is a strategic ploy by the plastics people. With reusable bags, all you need is common sense. Food is "Packaged" for this very reason. So we don't get sick from it. In all reality you will probably get more sick riding on a subway than using a plastic bag! Thanks for the read.


    June 15, 2011 at 12:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      I think you mean than from using a reusable bag. My reusables are not even plastic.

      June 15, 2011 at 14:59 | Report abuse |
  3. D

    I don't buy raw meat, and if I get any cooked meat, I bring along a paper grocery bag and don't have it put in with my other groceries. I don't even like it when the conveyor belt is wet and I don't place my items on the wet spots. Ironically, I am not a clean freak though.

    June 15, 2011 at 14:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim W

      You don't buy raw meat? Huh?

      June 15, 2011 at 16:26 | Report abuse |
    • StevenR

      I got news for you. You ARE a clean freak.

      June 15, 2011 at 17:23 | Report abuse |
  4. Jam

    Heck, I get the impression sometimes that anything we do is harmful to our health.

    June 15, 2011 at 15:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. erich2112x

    Can't stand to see people pick up fruit in the produce section, look at it, then put it back.

    June 15, 2011 at 15:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jim W

      That's why you wash it before you use it. Common sense, People, common sense...

      June 15, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse |
    • Tune A Fish

      Yeah. I just got back from Safeway, where I had to use the restroom while I was shopping. Someone came in after me, used the toilet, and then left w/o washing their hands. I hope they don't go picking over all the produce!

      June 15, 2011 at 19:30 | Report abuse |
    • Joy

      Every grocery store restroom I've been in has been disgusting.

      June 16, 2011 at 01:42 | Report abuse |
    • Joy

      I've never seen a grocery store restroom that wasn't disgusting.

      June 16, 2011 at 01:45 | Report abuse |
  6. PK

    So you've done all those good clean things and then get into your car and drive on a 7 lane Freeway andi inhale all that sweet fresh road air!

    June 15, 2011 at 15:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. chad

    Jam.....living is a very harmful activity for your health...duh!!!

    June 15, 2011 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • StevenR

      Yeah. Living is CERTAIN to kill you eventually.

      June 15, 2011 at 17:23 | Report abuse |
  8. anonymous

    first creenpringint ink doesn't have lead in it and all things even toys have lead in them the government allows a certain amt of lead parts per billion do your research before makign a comment that isn't accurate

    and i never visit article again where i left comment so i wll never see any replies so i get the last laugh as i don't normally come to cnn i stick with local news but all news lies as they say believe know of what you hear and only half of what you see

    June 15, 2011 at 16:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. ecochick

    funny timing for this article...i saw some mold sprouting up in one of my bags recently.
    hey erich i love to pick up produce and put it back, especially when it's bruised. if you don't look at it then you'll be buying something with a big gash/bruise/rotted spot in it. i guess you dont eat fruits and vegetables enough to know that though. or like the other guy said–maybe you aren't aware that you are supposed to wash your food before you eat it. i'm sure the germs on my hands that are washed all the time is not as bad as something that can come from the enviroment naturally like a bird turd.

    June 15, 2011 at 17:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • StevenR

      Don't worry about the bird turds. Worry about the pesticides. Be worried. Be very worried.

      June 15, 2011 at 17:24 | Report abuse |
  10. Tune A Fish

    Honestly, I am the least clean-conscious person when it comes to food germs. I don't use anti-bacterial anything, and have been known to put stuff in my mouth that I dropped on the counter. I don't get sick ever from food. Everyone is a germ-phobe these days, and it is making us vulnerable to illness in the long run. We need germs – fighting them keeps us strong!

    June 15, 2011 at 19:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Common sense

    How is this a "ploy by the plastics industry?" They're not telling you not to use your reusable bags, only that you need to wash them. If it's a ploy, it's a ploy by Clorox, but I really think it's just common sense. Wash your clothes, wash your counters, wash your bags. How sinister could that be?

    June 15, 2011 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • nodat1

      because some people will start reuseing plastic again!!!!!!!!!!!

      look at the big picture!!!!

      step one: getting started: Put out the briefing that reusable bags contain harmful bacterial but regular washing will solve the problem... aw the nice plastic industry is putting out a helpful suggestion ya right.

      Step two counter first step suggestion and site scientific proof: site a obscure report of a illness that might have been caused by bacterial growing in reusable bags even after it was washed , A news report will bring out their special black light to show the bacterial that survived the laundry. scientist hired by the plastic industry will suggest that boiling the bags will destroy the bacterial now called RBBS Reusable Bag Bacterial syndrome ( another helpful suggestion by the "concerned and helpful plastic industry)

      step three , Rely on the news reports and laziness of Americans: News station will pick up on the RBBS and will make a off comment that it would be easier to use plastic bags rather than going through the steps of boiling a shopping bag each time

      and that the big picture sure most of us are smart to know BS when we see it some of know that you must wash a reusable bag, but what the plastic industry is hoping for is to get back just some of of lost revenue through BS reports like this!!!!!!!!

      June 16, 2011 at 08:59 | Report abuse |
  12. Kris

    I just throw mine into the washing machine and then let air-dry. I lose the fancy logos on the outside, but I'm assured my food isn't contaminated. We are so far behind Germany and other European countries! No one there uses paper or plastic and they are almost horrified if you don't already have your own bags and usually will offer you free ones.

    June 15, 2011 at 20:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • kdw31

      Germany has plastic grocery bags. At least they did three years ago when I was there. You have to pay 10 cents a bag for them but they do have them. In Canada where I live now you have to pay for the plastic bags as well. It really is an incentive to bring your own bags.

      June 15, 2011 at 20:52 | Report abuse |
  13. Som eone

    OK, let's think about this for a second. You should wash your fruits and veggies before you eat them, and besides, when was the last time you saw someone actually dump a load of produce into a bag without first putting it into another disposable plastic bag first?

    Really – if the reusable bag looks gross, just clean it occasionally.

    June 15, 2011 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Eric

    Excellent, that's interesting. ebags coupon

    June 15, 2011 at 22:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Mike Bender

    Where I shop, they have cloth reusable bags that can easily be laundered. I hang them on the clothesline to dry then just to be safe I pop them in the dryer just long enough to get them hot.

    Raw meat? Our grocer has clear plastic bags to place the carton of meat in. There probably are many nasty germs on the shrink wrapped package because the butcher who created all the nifty one pound packages was wearing gloves and working like a mad man to get the job done. Hamburger, chicken, steak, etc., if packaged at the store they will have numerous bacteria on the wrapper. I just pop them into a plastic bag and use the hand sanitizer so I don't spread any bacteria. The scanner works right through the bag so the check out person does not need to remove the meat and get the bacteria on their hands. They probably get enough germs from handling the money.

    June 15, 2011 at 23:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Queen

    At least they tell you all the facts...like who performed the "study". I've been constant for three years and not that careful, I'm perfectly healthy. Plus I use reusable bags for my veggies & fruit same. (TJ Dacian-bravo, exactly the same)

    June 16, 2011 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. nodat1

    another common sense news bulletin

    June 16, 2011 at 08:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Martin

    Bacteria are everywhere. Wash your hands and cook your food! If you eat raw food, wash it! Turn your reusable bags inside out and hang them in the sun.

    June 16, 2011 at 08:41 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Areebah Albert Johnson

    It is wonderful that people want to help the planet. It’s a good idea to use stylish cloth bags and canvas, these bags are extremely strong, durable, rot resistant, soft smooth and pleasant to the touch, however if people take responsibility for them and keep them bacteria free. Unfortunately, most people do not keep them clean so they are more of a health hazard that helps the planet. It does not really matter whether or not landfills are full, so people who live on the planet is sick or has died of germs that spread cloth bags or canvas. Are you ready to join the financial revolution? If so, just Google "Oil Trading Academy" and change your life forever.

    June 16, 2011 at 13:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. ReusableBagAdvocat

    It is true that we need to clean our reusable bags. What is the big deal in cleaning them? I have reusable cotton bags that I just put in the washer every 15 days and clean them...Check out carryplus.com for great designer reusable cotton bags that you can be washed easily....

    June 20, 2011 at 15:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • ReusableBagAdvocat

      Sorry typo....

      Check out carryplus.com for great designer reusable cotton bags that can be washed easily....

      June 20, 2011 at 15:49 | Report abuse |
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  24. Dale

    The solution is not to use the typical "free" canvas bags (takes forever to dry and holds contaminants). Buy something like "breezy bags", made from nylon, that you can wash in the washing machine and they air dry really quickly.

    July 24, 2011 at 09:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. bag lover

    Nylon bags are definitely not "breezy bags". In fact cotton bags are breezy and breathable bags. I don't like the feel of plastic or nylon on my skin. Canvas bags are more eco-friendly than any other bags and are equally easy maintenance as other plastic material(nylon,polyester)bags . when going green go really green. There is no point in doing half good. Any day i would vote for
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    July 24, 2011 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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  34. Michael Corman

    Please tell me the names of the diseases I will get when I fill my cloth shopping bag with canned goods and boxws of food.

    Also. Whoever posted this "news story" please give us the names of people who got sick from a dirty cloth shopping bag and also the names of the physician(s) who can verify the cause as being a dirty shopping bag.

    Anyone who shops with a filthy shopping bag and gets sick probably died from not changing his undershorts for the last 6 months.

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  37. Mom of a courtesy clerk (bagger)

    I have only recently become aware of filthy cloth bags. My daughter bags for a local grocery store and she hates putting her hand in those dirty, disgusting bags, full of cat hair and other unmentionable icky stuff. No one is washing their cloth bags!!! It is sick and unsanitary. I don't want to use plastic, definitely not. I think we need a new campaign of sorts out there to get people to realize that cloth needs to be washed. Even I realized I was hauling my cloth bags back and forth to the store for ages without thinking that, wow, I should throw these dang things in the washer now and then.

    July 6, 2012 at 12:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. shortiam56@gmail.com

    For the last couple of weeks. I've been bagging groceries and every time I use the reusable bags; I always break out with an allergic reaction. I have bought myself benadryl cream and rubbing alcohol and so far neither of those two work for me. What do you think I should do?

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