If you're looking to avoid using paper or plastic, then you probably have quite a few reusable shopping bags floating around your life. You might have one in your purse, a few stuffed in the back of your car, and the rest hanging from doorknobs around your apartment. But when was the last time you actually cleaned any of them?
When you think about it, these bags are set down on floors, dragged down the street, and stuffed full of groceries like dripping containers of chicken, as well as other items you pick up throughout the day. And it can all result in a collection of bags that've seen better days, as they sit there full of bacteria, dirt, and other debris.
The truth of the matter is, "it's very common for people to not wash their reusable shopping bags," Dr. Nidhi Ghildayal, an infectious disease specialist and PhD from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. You're likely to be just fine, but it is helpful to consider what you're using these bags for and what they come in contact with, especially since some things — like meat juice — can be a breeding ground for food-borne illness, she says.
One study found that bacteria capable of causing food-borne illness were found on almost all bags tested, Dr. Kelly Bay, a certified dietician nutritionist, certified nutrition specialist, doctor of chiropractic, and health coach, tells Bustle. Half the bags tested had coliform bacteria on them, she says, and some even had E. coli.
As Bay says, "these findings make a lot of sense, since we place unwashed produce and animal products directly into these bags." You then carry them with you through various germ-y environments and leave them in places — like the trunk of a hot car — that can encourage bacterial growth, Bay says.
But that definitely doesn't mean you should toss your bags, or give up on using them. If you have them on hand to tote groceries, all you need to do is separate your foods by type, just like you would when using paper or plastic bags. "It would be best to have labeled bags for meats, produce, ready-to-eat foods, etc.," Ghildayal says. This tactic will help prevent meat from getting onto your apples, yogurt from spilling on your bread, and that'll help lower the risk of food-borne illness.
"Obviously, items that are loose in the bag that are not later cooked, such as fruits and vegetables, should be washed (as would be the recommendation anyway)," Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, FACP, FACEP, a board-certified infectious disease physician, tells Bustle, which just goes to show none of this has to be a problem.
It also isn't a bad idea to designate specific bags for specific activities. For example, you won't want to use the same bag to tote sneakers to the gym and then use it to bring home groceries, Ghildayal says, since you'll be running the risk of getting dirt and germs on your food. And, of course, you can always toss cotton bags into the wash, which Ghildayal recommends doing at least every two weeks.
"They can be washed with hot water and detergent in your laundry machine, or just check the tag for instructions," Ghildayal says. "Thermal cooler bags can be wiped down with a disinfecting wipe, and make sure you pay extra care to the deep corners. Do not put your bags away until they are completely dry, and try your best to store them in a dry place with decent air circulation."
All of that said, "it’s important to remember that the entire planet is covered with microbes and the vast majority pose no threat," Adalja says. "Reusable shopping bags, like anything, can accumulate micoorganisms from the environment," so you don't need to be too concerned. "Unless the bag is visibly soiled, most of the risk is not worth worrying about," he says. The most important thing is remembering to bring them along with you, so you can stick to your goal of using plastic bags less often.
Barbosa, J., Albano, H., Silva, C., & Teixeira, P. (2019). Microbiological contamination of reusable plastic bags for food transportation. Food Control, 99, 158–163. doi: 10.1016/j.foodcont.2018.12.041
Dr. Nidhi Ghildayal, infectious disease specialist and PhD from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health
Dr. Kelly Bay, certified dietician nutritionist, certified nutrition specialist, doctor of chiropractic, and health coach
Amesh A. Adalja, MD, FIDSA, FACP, FACEP, board-certified infectious disease physician