The Downside of Reusable Grocery Bags

You know those reusable cloth bags that environmentally-conscious shoppers proudly tote to the grocery store? It turns out they may be making you sick. A journalist in Denver set about testing a variety of reusable cloth bags for bacteria, and the results aren’t pretty. Several of the bags had low to moderate levels of bacteria, while two bags had much higher levels. “Wow. Wow. That is pretty impressive,” said Dr. Michelle Baron, an infectious disease expert at the University of Colorado Hospital. “We’re talking in the million range of bacteria.” The solution? Wash the bags after each use. (HT: Stuart Roy) [%comments]


...or throw them away :-)


Does washing the bag use more resources than recycling a paper bag and getting a new one each time?

Dirty secret let out of the bag.

Washing them after each use implies a use of detergent, water, and energy that surely nullifies the benefit of one fewer plastic bag having been used.


Wait, if you have to wash it after each use, plus the original manufacturing input is significantly higher... how close are we to the same environmental impact for reusable bags as recycled plastic bags? Also, when a plastic bag rips it just goes into the recycling bin, when the reusable bag rips it gets tossed in the garbage.

The first argument I can imagine is that not everyone recycles their plastic bags, but the people who are of the conscience to use reusable bags will also be likely to recycle...

Randall Nortman

So what if there are bacteria on the bags? There are bacteria everywhere, particularly the keyboard you're typing on as you munch on your sandwich, the chair you're sitting in, the door handle on the restaurant you're going to eat dinner at, etc. The vast, vast majority of bacteria are utterly harmless, and some of them are probably beneficial. Our species evolved in a very dirty environment without soap or bleach. We can handle almost every type of bacteria, even infectious ones, in limited quantities (excepting people with compromised immune systems).

So are those "millions" of bacteria harmful? Do they make it onto the food? What percentage of them survive the rinsing that you're supposed to give produce anyway before eating? What percentage survive subsequent cooking? How many are left in the end? Is it enough to actually cause disease? Before anybody makes the claim that reusable grocery bags are making those silly greenies sick, let's see some evidence that anybody is actually getting sick from them, hm?



So, which is worse, using up plastic or using up water (and pumping some extra detergent into the ecosystem)?

Either way, I'm definitely going to wash my cloth bags when I get home.

Barbara Wickwire

Much though depends on whether or not meat was put into recyclable bags without first being placed inside plastic bags. That alone would account for a high bacteria count since those products often leak or get contaminated. Bags holding cans and vegetables etc. would not have a high count.


It seems likely the energy used to launder the bag would exceed the energy required to manufacture a plastic bag, not to mention the damage from the detergents.


I wonder what that would do to the eco-friendly level of the bags.

Theoretically it is better to make one reusable bag which may last as long as 100 plastic bags. Sure, it takes more up-front resources to make a reusable bag compared to a plastic bag, but the savings are supposed to come in the long run as no more plastic bags need to be made as long as the reusable bag is still usable.

However, if the bag needs to be washed after each use, that uses up resources to wash the bag, and it will lower to length of time the bag can be used because of the washing's effect.

Are reusable bags no longer consuming fewer resources than plastic bags once washing is added to the consideration? (or even, did they ever consume fewer resources?)

What if they are only washed after several uses instead of after each use?

Does anyone know of any studies which might have looked at this topic?


A study on illness frequency and reusable bag usage would be a lot more meaningful.

Even the dirtier bags they tested are still probably far cleaner than our keyboards.


Bamboo cutting boards are supposedly naturally bacteria resistant. Perhaps they should make the bags from bamboo fiber.


Can I get funding to study morbidity and mortality rates for those who use disposable vs reusable grocery bags?

Just a little perspective - your kitchen is dirtier than the bags, and your refrigerator is worse than your bathroom.


I bet if they tested the shelves at the grocery store, they'd also find millions of bacteria. Or the hands of the people buying groceries. Or the belts in the checkout lane.

That's why you wash fruits and vegetables before you eat them, and everything else comes in packages.

I still have my doubts about how many times I have to re-use my huge, heavy-duty reusable bags to make them less environmentally impacting than the number of thin, flimsy plastic bags I'd have used otherwise, but bacteria doesn't even begin to factor into reasons why I care.


Just throw it in with your other washing. Have a few bags and it shouldn't be an issue

Metaphorically Speaking

I propose we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Dave Kliman

well then, let's just do away with grocery stores, and grow all our material goods at home, with nanotechnology.

Better, let's just download all of society into software, and when we want something we can purchase it virtually. I heard virtual sales are way up this year, anyway.


So what? Are we licking the bags when we bring them home?

Bacteria are everywhere. Why would grocery bags suddenly have to be sterile? Besides, virtually everything that we toss into reusable bags comes in its own packaging---sometimes several layers worth. If anything is thrown in "naked," such as a stray apple or head of broccoli, just wash before using. Don't you do that anyway?


Here's and idea, instead of washing the bags, wash the fruit and veggies and try not to eat the packaging for you packaged food. I know cardboard tastes good and all, but for the children...


what are people putting their garbage in???? I see people using recycled bags but purchasing plastic bags for their garbage. Does this not defeat the purpose?


Washing the reusable bag does not use up more resources.

You don't wash the reusable bag by itself.

It's called Economies Of Scale -- you wash the reusable bag with your regular laundry, so that no additional water or energy is consumed beyond what you would have used anyway for the regular laundry.