We environmentally aware people love our reusable grocery bags, but would we feel the same way if we found them to be cesspools of bacteria and mold? That’s the troubling conclusion of a new research study that looked at what’s lurking inside these bags.
Reusable grocery bags are quickly catching on as an alternative to the environmentally irresponsible plastic bags that have been in use for the last couple of decades. People are increasingly taking these bags to the store–sometimes voluntarily, other times because stores no longer offer alternatives. Governments are also increasingly taxing or outright banning plastic bags. That’s all great news for the environment.
However, a recent study funded by the Canadian Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC) found that over 30% of reusable bags studied had unsafe levels of bacteria and 40% had some kind of yeast or mold. Cathy Cirko, VP of EPIC, said that reusable bags are “a breeding ground for bacteria and pose public health risks – food poisoning, skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections.”
The source of the study is suspect, as EPIC has a vested interest in continued use of plastic. But the study does remind us of an important hygiene concern that many of us may not have considered. It’s easy to just stuff groceries willy-nilly into the bags, plop them on the ground where convenient, and then shove them in the closet in one big mass as soon as we’re done with them.
Unlike EPIC, I don’t think the answer is “the responsible use of plastic.” Rather I think we just need to be a lot more careful in how we use our reusable bags. Here are five common sense tips for helping to ensure that our bags stay safe to use:
1) Minimize the mixing of different types of groceries. This is true not just when you’re packing up at the store, but from one visit to the next. In particular I’d suggest that you never, ever, put meat products in the same bags in which you put other groceries like produce. Likewise, I’d keep produce and dairy products segregated in their own separate bags. One way to be consistent across shopping trips is to use different colored bags for different kinds of groceries, so you know what goes where.
2) Don’t use reusable grocery bags for other purposes. It can be tempting to pick up these bags to carry anything from dirty gym clothes to discarded stuff on its way to the local Goodwill. This is an excellent opportunity for bacteria and mold from other sources to infect your bags.
3) Let bags dry out before storing them. Don’t just shove the bags in the closet when you’re done with them. Let them air out for a while and allow moisture to evaporate. Moisture will cling to them from anything that’s frozen or refrigerated. Allowing moisture to dry up minimizes the chance for mold and bacteria to multiply.
4) Watch where you put them. When we plop the bags down on the asphalt while opening the trunk, and later mix all the bags together in the closet, there’s an opportunity for whatever grime was on the ground to transfer to the insides of other bags. Try to minimize bags touching dirty surfaces like parking lots or your driveway.
5) Wash them! Stick the bags in the washing machine with some good (eco friendly) disinfectant. This will go a long way towards reducing bacteria. If you use hardy cooler bags (which retain cold), you can wash them down with a sponge and soap.
This grocery bag safety issue is no joke, but as always it’s important not to succumb to hysteria. Reusable bags make a huge amount of sense, as long as we use them responsibly.