"Green" shopping bags could make you green around the gills

"Green" shopping bags could make you green around the gills

Summary: It makes me really sad to think that more people might wind up in the hospital because they're trying to be virtuous in their use of reusable grocery bags.

TOPICS: Health

If you're like many environmentally conscious modern citizens, you're trying to do your part to keep it green. This might mean you've invested in a pile of those reusable shopping bags you see more and more often in stores these days, sometimes for as low as a buck at your speedy checkout lane.

The other day I was at my local Publix grocery store here in Florida, and I saw a tired mom, fighting the good fight. She was behind me in line when she remembered she'd forgotten her reusable shopping bags in the car. She tossed the keys to her reluctant pre-teen, and asked him to run out to the car to grab the bags from the trunk. After an editorial sigh, he started running.

She shrugged, and grinned at me, and said she was trying to teach her kids about taking care of their planet, one bag at a time. She said she had the kids stash the bags right back in the trunk after each grocery run. That way, the bags would always be at hand when they were needed. She mentioned that they often came in handy for different things they did together, as a family.

I wished her a nice day, passing her son carrying an armload of gnarly looking sacks on my way out. I carted my own plastic-bagged groceries out to my car, feeling a little guilty. I also felt a little uneasy, thinking about that jumble of bags living in the friendly woman's trunk. I got home, unpacked my groceries, and did some Googling.

Here's your SmartPlanet moment for the day

It turns out that, according to a joint research study conducted by the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California, "Reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous food-borne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health."

If you'd like the details on how the research project was conducted, and more information about the nasty bacterial contamination the researchers found, download the PDF entitled, Assessment of the Potential for Cross Contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags. It's really interesting, and really freaky.

It turns out that people use their reusable bags to bring meat, poultry, and fresh vegetables home from the grocery store, often throw all kinds of other stuff in their handy totes, use them to take lunch to work, sometimes even stash soiled gym clothes and kid's toys in them, leave them in their cars (where the warmth and moisture causes bacteria to grow), and keep using the same bags, over and over again, without washing them.

This is has some really dangerous implications for public health.

When you think about how E. coli is found on 50% of shopping carts, it makes you think twice about putting your purse where the toddler butt goes. But it seems like nobody is thinking twice about reusing these bags two, three, a dozen times. And it's time we started to change our ways, especially since we are encountering more and more nasty, rough and tough, treatment-resistant bacteria.

The public is being encouraged (some might even say pressured) to use these bags, but we're not being educated about how to use them safely. They really should be washed after each use, preferably in hot water.

I have a few of these types of bags around my house that I've gotten as freebies, and some of them don't look like they'd hold up very well to washing. One of them has a cardboard reinforced fabric insert in the bottom that definitely wouldn't make it through even one laundering. So if you're planning to reuse fabric shopping bags, look for ones made from sturdy cotton fabrics that can stand up to laundering in hot water, and make sure they're large enough to withstand some shrinkage.

I'm not sure how to measure it, but is it possible that all that hot water washing could make reusable bags a wash in terms of energy savings?

Here's a collaboration opportunity. Let's see if we can figure this out. I'm pretty sure some of you readers out there know how to do power measurements. How much energy does it take to wash a bag in hot water? What impact does that have on our environment? Finally, how does it balance against the waste created by all the disposable plastic bags?

I know that as a nurse, I've often been appalled by all the waste created by disposable items we use in hospitals. But I've always believed the explanation that avoiding the potential for contamination and contagion outweighs the possible environmental benefits of using non-disposable items.

It just makes me really sad to think that more people might wind up in the hospital because they're trying to be virtuous in their use of reusable grocery bags.

What do you think about the pros and cons of reusable bags? Do you think the benefits outweigh the risks? Let us know in the TalkBacks below.

Topic: Health


Denise Amrich is a Registered Nurse, the health care advisor for the U.S. Strategic Perspective Institute, and a mentor for the Virtual Campus at Florida's Brevard Community College.

Nothing in this article is meant to be a substitute for medical advice, and shouldn't be considered as such. If you are in need of medical help, please see your doctor.

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  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    Those reusable bags could easily be thrown in the wash.
  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    I've never seen a reusable bag, and never seen anyone actually using one... but can't they be washed? I know if I was reusing bags for groceries, I'd be washing them.

    But this might not be a bad thing... help beef up those kids immune systems. Whatever doesn't kill you can make you stronger :-) I see so many parents and kids being super hygienic and always carrying bottles of hand sanitizers, sometimes I worry about those kids later on when they immune system has not been as built up as it should be.
  • People will be, well, stupid.

    You have a great point, but it boggles my mind that people need to be told such things. You nailed it in a minute. It should be obvious to people that these things need to be washed, but... (anecdote)My ready-bake pizza actually said "Remove from box before cooking". wtf?

    You shouldn't need to run an extra load of laundry to clean the bags. Marginal cost may still be zero. Still, the bags aren't meant to be green because of energy impact. The goal is to reduce littering, landfill, and the Texas+ sized garbage patch collecting in the Pacific gyre.
  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    Oh good grief, what a bunch of hysterical, over-wrougt bull-bleep. Our food supply is a series of one contamination scare after another, colic-y babies with overflowing diapers sit in you grocery cart, while bronchitis suffering shoppers cough into their hands and then grab the shopping cart handle, yet you worry about a stained grocery bag. Get over yourself. I'm never sure if these stories are perpetuated by the oil industry, concerned over the loss of a few pennies worth of plastic, or by guilty-conscience environmental scoffers? Sounds like you fall into the latter category. Yes, I use re-usable shopping bags, and I'm not worried about getting sick from them. For one, most food I buy is in a package or bag, and does not come into contact with the bag. Second, most food is cooked, or if eaten raw, washed before consuming. Anything that gets on the surface of food from my bag can be easily washed off. I am more concerned about the pesticides used when growing the food, that is absorbed into the food. And, worried about the kids I see gnawing on the shopping cart handle!
  • so you wash them, like anything else!

    Lame article.. assuming people don't wash their food and things that touch food.
  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    I'll stick to plastic bags...they're quite handy since I use them as a liner to scoop the cat's litter box into. And it takes all the bags I get from the store as I scoop it every day.
  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    Just make sure that meat and bacterial-laden perishables are in a small plastic bag before you place it in your green shopping bag. A lot of the green ones that I use are recycled plastic -- those could be wiped down with soapy hot water or turned inside out and sprayed with lysol. So far no food poisoning for me...knock...knock...knock...
  • wash reusable bags only when dirty, not necessarily after every use

    You shouldn't say to wash reusable grocery bags after every shopping trip, most of which result in zero contamination after all. Do you wash your purse after every shopping trip whether to Kroger or Target? If not, why not, as you probably set it right where some small child with a leaky diaper had sat previously, which could have transferred E. Coli to your pocketbook, which then transferred some to your car seat and whatever counter or table you may have set it on after reaching home. This is especially true if all raw or potentially oozy items are first bagged in their own separate plastic bag. Not only will that save the environment from more laundry soap, etc., but also make the bags last longer since washing is a primary factor in wearing out their fabric (and clothes, too). Such exaggeration creates an equal and opposite reaction that tends to make people less likely to wash their "green bags" when they are actually dirty.
  • What Are You BUYING?

    Sounds like some of you folks are still shopping in the ol' general store with an open pickle barrel and cookie jars you scoop out your goodies. Everything I buy these days comes wrapped in numerous layers of cardboard & cellophane or hermetically sealed into tin cans. How can you possibly get cross contamination??? Worst thing can happen in the local Piggly Wiggly is to get sneezed on by the checkout girl!
  • RE: 'Green' shopping bags could make you green around the gills

    Caution: Pregnant and Breastfeeding women use them.Keep out reach of children .Do not give to children.
  • Reusable bags are fine

    The above-named study was funded by the plastics industry. The city of San Francisco passed a bag ban three years ago - no reported increase in e coli infections. Wash your bags! Keep meat in it's own bag! That's all there is to it.