Practicing safe sacks may not mean plastic baglessness

Efforts to preserve our environment and our health don't have to be all or nothing, do they?
Written by Denise Amrich, Contributor on

Last week, ZDNet Health featured an article about the dangers involved with reusable shopping bags.

See also: “Green” shopping bags could make you green around the gills

There were a number of responses on the discussion boards, some more civil than others, including one from a reader who accused me of assuming that people don't wash these bags (which touch their food), after using them.

I thought I should make it clear that there was absolutely no assumption on my part. According to data collected by researchers at the University of Arizona, 97% of people actually come right out and admit that they seldom or never wash their reusable bags.

Some of the other statistics the study revealed include:

  • 75% of consumers don't use separate bags for meat and produce.
  • 30% use the reusable bags to transport other items in addition to groceries.
  • Storing reusable bags in a hot car causes bacteria to grow ten times faster.
  • Twelve percent of reusable bags contain E. coli.
  • Bacteria buildup on reusable bags has been found to be 300% higher than is considered safe.
  • 40% of reusable bags tested in 2011 contain amounts of lead that exceed allowable limits.

To see more interesting statistics about reusable shopping bags, check out this info-graphic on how to Practice Safe Sacks.

It's really important to me to be sure I am giving accurate information, so I went back over to the grocery store to check out whether the bags I was thinking about (which are made of a strange, funky material never found in nature) were washable, as ZDNet Health reader SeekerOfTruths maintained they should be.

In fact, non-woven polypropylene bags like this type sold by GreenBag are not meant to be bleached or machine washed and dried, but hand washed in cold water and line dried. Call me crazy or lazy (sticks and stones), but there's no way my busy schedule allows for hand-washing reusable bags and hanging them on a clothesline to dry.

Excessive human drudgery is not a fair trade for something of questionable benefit. Besides, extra work of this type disproportionately falls to women.

Reader tkejlboom makes a great point about how reducing the energy impact of extra laundry isn't what makes the bags green, it's about reducing littering and landfill use. That nasty Pacific Trash Vortex is a horror, to be sure.

However, we can't really assume that these reusable bags aren't going into landfills. The materials they're made from are all over the map. We also have to be concerned about what impact the materials we're using to replace our other undesirable materials will have on our environment, in terms of production, energy cost, biodegredation, and dangerous substances like lead.

For my future reusable bag needs, I'll be looking for machine washable bags that can stand up to hot water and a tumble dry, and I'll be sticking with plastic bags for produce and meat. That seems to be a good way to go, since experts recommend separately plastic bagging these items before placing them in reusable bags, anyhow (which is ironic, and seems to defeat the purpose slightly).

By the way, legitimate concern for human health doesn't equate to lack of concern about the environment. Efforts to preserve our environment and our health don't have to be all or nothing, do they? That's one of the key messages of our popular sister site, SmartPlanet.

Can't we take a reasonable, safe, middle of the road approach? If you've decided to use reusable bags, why not get the kind that are truly washable, and wash them? If you've decided to use plastic bags, why not reuse them as trash can liners or recycle them? Reader AmraLeo uses them to clean out the cat box, which is a pretty clever reuse, in my opinion.

If you enjoy getting your info from videos, check out this YouTube video about using bags safely. Please be aware that the video (and the ones that are related to it) was produced by Hilex Poly, an American manufacturer of plastic bags made from recycled materials, and an operator of a plastic bag recycling facility, so it's not from an entirely unbiased source.

Maybe it's not even fair to assume that a university study is unbiased. Funding comes from somewhere, and everyone seems to have an axe to grind these days. But information can be helpful, and considering many viewpoints and sources of information, while maintaining an awareness of any possible agendas, is the best way we have of arming ourselves with data that we can use to improve our world.

Not being rude to people who introduce information that messes with your worldview would be a good start on that improvement. Cherished beliefs should be questioned, held up to scrutiny, and discarded if they can't stand the light of day. If something that's being socially pushed is a bad answer to a legitimate concern, it doesn't negate the legitimate concern. It just means better answers are needed.

Technology is one area where better answers are born. Thinking about, blogging about, and talking about these things are some of the ways that the seeds of good new solutions begin to sprout and grow.

We do need some good ideas, because our food supply is, indeed, in constant danger of contamination. It is a real issue in our culture. Our immune-suppressed citizens are the most at risk, as well as the elderly and the very young. Just because high risk may not pertain to you or someone you love at this point in time, doesn't mean it's not something to be concerned about.

There's no need for hysteria. Panicking rarely helps anything, but knowledge often does. It lets us be aware, so we can make wise choices and take smart precautions. Let's make decisions that improve our environment, our health, our communities, and our personal lives with the understanding that the betterment of all these things isn't necessarily a mutually exclusive proposition.

Let's hold a space for the idea that beautiful, synergistic solutions can be found if we don't let ourselves be bullied into not questioning and not thinking outside the little boxes the world constantly tries to shove us into. That goes for bags, too.

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