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Are Reusable Bags Bacteria Breeding Grounds?: The Plastic Industry Takes Aim

Updated on September 17, 2011
Does this look like a haven for bacteria? Picture from ReusableBags.ca
Does this look like a haven for bacteria? Picture from ReusableBags.ca

Are reusable bags really dangerous? Well, probably not - but the plastics industry is fighting to ensure that you reconsider your decision to use cloth or other reusable bags.

A recent study done by two independent research labs came to the conclusion that reusable bags are havens for bacteria, yeasts and mold. It turns out that as many as 64 per cent of the reusable bags tested were contaminated with some level of bacteria. In addition, lab researchers said that almost 30 per cent of reusable grocery bags had elevated bacterial counts higher than what's considered safe for drinking water.

A Better Perspective On The Study

The study may have been done by "independent" labs, but the sponsor of the study is definitely biased. Funding was provided by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC), which is a committee within the Canadian Plastics Industry Association. Obviously, if the consumer starts to turn against the use of plastic, this puts the plastic industry under a lot of pressure.

Of course, the interpretation of the results further sensationalized the results. Sporometrics research director Dr Richard Summerbell pointed the finger at reusable bags and said that they could be responsible for a host of potential medical ills: food poisoning, skin infections such as bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks, and ear infections.

None of this has been proved in the real world: Summerbell's conclusions are hypothetical and depend on people using less than completely hygienic practices with the food they bring home and with the bags themselves. There is no indication in media reports of what the likelihood of any of the potential medical complications are. In fact, the majority of the potential contaminants cited, from bacteria to molds and yeast, are all commonly present in the human body in the first place.

Since the worst of the bacteria and contamination are in the bottom and seams of the reusable bags, I have to wonder: would it take running your fingers along the seam of the bag and then putting them in your ears (without any hand washing in between) for you to end up with an ear infection? As for skin infections, for the vast majority of us with normal immune systems, would you actually need broken skin that you rubbed a contaminated bag over?

My question is: Are we really at that much risk?

Make Your Own Washable Cloth Bag

Check out this great article with step-by-step instructions on how to make your own reusable bag!

Healthy Use Of Any Reusable Bag Or Container

The media have taken the much-quoted study and vaulted the hazards of reusable bags squarely into the public consciousness. But little has been said about the very simple procedures that ensure healthy use of reusable bags.

The obvious point is that cloth bags should be washed periodically. In fact, if you treat your reusable bags the same way that you treat your clothing, you will be on the right track.

  1. If the bag has been subjected to a spill or leak from foods of various kinds, it should be washed immediately before using it again. (You wouldn't wear your favorite shirt again if it had spaghetti sauce on the front unless you washed it, right?)
  2. Bags should be stored wisely. Preferred ways to store would include containers that allow some air flow and will keep bags safe from moisture. This is not a surprise: the world is not a microbe-free zone, and anything that is left damp will provide a breeding ground for bacteria.(It's the same deal with clothing. If you put summer clothes away for the winter, you don't put them away damp unless you want to find mold stains on them in the spring.)
  3. Regular washing and drying is all we need for clean clothes. It's also sufficient for clean bags. Water is the best cleaner and soap simply helps it to hold dirt better. If you are worried about a deodorized bag, add some vinegar to your rinse or baking soda to the wash. So, if you wouldn't wear the same outfit for more than a couple of times without washing, then the same applies to your reusable bags.
  4. Always follow any washing instructions provided with the bag. Obviously, with the wrong washing approach, your reusable bag might not be reusable anymore.

Let's not lose our way because of a single study. We don't have single use clothing - and we don't need single use plastic bags either.

If you are cooking like this, you could be in trouble. From www.ac-nancy-metz.fr
If you are cooking like this, you could be in trouble. From www.ac-nancy-metz.fr

Avoid Food Borne Illness

The real issue with food safety is how we handle our food, rather than the reusable bag that we bring it home in. The same good habits that help you avoid food poisoning will also ensure that any food that you prepare will be safe to eat:

  1. When you are ready to eat or prepare food items, wash them first! After all, you would do this whether you took the food home in plastic bags or not. This simple practice will generally remove any contamination from the surface of your produce so that you can eat healthfully.
  2. Wash hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils thoroughly before and after handling raw foods. This will help to prevent bacteria contamination of cooked foods - and will keep bacteria counts down in the kitchen! (Check out my article for more tips on a bacteria - free kitchen without chemicals.)
  3. Keep refrigerated foods below 40 degrees F / 4.5 degrees C. This will retard bacterial growth.
  4. Serve hot foods immediately or keep them heated above 140 degrees F / 60 degrees C.
  5. If you have a large amount of cooked food to go into the frig, divide it into small amounts so that it cools rapidly. Large, hot items can raise the temperature of the whole frig, raising the temp of items already cooled.
  6. Remember the danger zone for food problems is between 40 degrees F / 4.5 degrees C and 140 degrees F / 60 degrees C.
  7. Follow approved home-canning procedures. You are most likely to get botulism or other serious food illness from your own home canning!
  8. Heat canned foods thoroughly before tasting. Normal cooking will generally kill microbial contaminants.
  9. If you don't think a food or dish seems right, throw it out!

Enjoy your fresh food and produce - and keep using those reusable bags.

Comments

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    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 

      5 years ago from America

      I threw my bags from the store into the wash they last week. They look great and came out fine. Lots of good information on your hub. Voted up.

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      7 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Reusable bags are the right thing; they need some simple maintenance, but that's true of anything that you use and aren't going to through away after one use! Let's hope that humans can start thinking more like natural processes, which are not "throw away". Nature is the ultimate recycler.

    • MarkMAllen15 profile image

      MarkMAllen15 

      7 years ago

      Very informative hub! IT could never be a win if people who are unaware of this fact standstill in using reusable bags.

    • DzyMsLizzy profile image

      Liz Elias 

      7 years ago from Oakley, CA

      Yep! Who pays for the study gets the results they want!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Those are questions that determine which kind of bag to buy, so that by doing something that reduces our dependence on oil and other synthetic chemicals, that you don't create another problem. However, one look at pictures from the Pacific Gyre (also known as the Pacific Garbage Patch), no one can think that disposable is more environmentally friendly.

    • profile image

      DDBugs 

      9 years ago

      How many plastic bags can be manufactured for the environmental cost of manufacturing a reusable bag? What is the carbon footprint of one, vs the other? i.e. How many times do you have to use a reusable bag to conver the impact of creating it?

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      thegreenerme - I have to agree about the grocery store check-out folks! They really haven't figured out how to bag with reusable bags... Last week, I had a bag where they had put eggs in the bottom! (It was quite the mess...) LOL.

      My bags are going in the laundry this week! ;-)

    • thegreenerme profile image

      thegreenerme 

      9 years ago

      Great points. I try to keep my raw meats in a separate reusable bag and designate it just for that puprose when I go grocery shopping. I have to say I also like bagging the groceries myself when I bring my own bags. The baggers haven't exactly caught onto the whole "reusable bag" thing and try to still use plastic or paper sometimes (even when I bring my own). It's saves me time to go to self checkout and bag my own, where I can sort them quickly, and they'll be easier to put away when I get home.

      Now that you've reminded me, I'm going to check all of my reusable bags and probably wash them while I'm at it. Thanks for the tips!

    • profile image

      Tess Rousseau 

      9 years ago

      I'm one of those who gets into the store and is at the check-out and says to the clerk, " I'll just put the items back in the cart as I forgot my bags in the car". I then stand at the back of my van, putting them into my own reusable bags. One time like this in the dead of winter should cure me for sure, if I haven't picked up the habit by then. Ha! Ha! Mind you I'm just shopping for one, I can't imagine, forgetting my bags if I had a large family to shop for.

    • profile image

      MurrayGunson 

      9 years ago

      As soon as I take the groceries into the house, everything gets put away, including the bags - back into the car. I started to do this after a couple of times of carting them into my car sans bags, or having a stack of groceries in my arms.

      Actually, it has never occured to me to wash my reusable bags. I've never had a spill in them. I continue to get my meat in plastic bags to avoid contaminating the reusable bags. I still use plastic produce bags in-store for thin skinned fruits and veggies I eat raw, to avoid contact with cahiers' hands which come into contact with known sources of pathogens, like paper money, among other things... Ever since the last Hep scare (spinach), I wash thick skinned fruit and veggies with soap before biting or cutting into them. I'm planning to get a Lotus sanitizer system the next time they go on sale. A friend of mine has one, and says it's amazing how well lettuce keeps after sanitizing.

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Camping Dan - EXACTLY... However, the plastics industry is "rushing" these "results" before the Canadian government! I'm sure this is a vain attempt to get people using single-use plastic bags again due to fear of bacteria. But honestly - if your reusable bag is festering with bacteria, what about anything else that you need to launder...? The world is simply not antiseptic and our bodies are more resilient than we think - and, doing the laundry never killed anyone. ;-)

    • Camping Dan profile image

      Camping Dan 

      9 years ago

      I am sure they can become that way. But who does not wash their bag on occasion?

    • profile image

      Clare 

      9 years ago

      Bacteria and fungi spores are everywhere, yet we seem to survive. Apparently the average home's kitchen worktop harbours more bacteria than the toilet seat(unless you clean with my super disinfecting eco-spray of course :) ) . Yet we are, for the most part, not all dying of food poisonings and getting terrible bacterial infections. The planet and humans were made to cope with bacteria, but not plastic. Funnily enough, my re-usable bags for shopping are made of woven plastic(oops), but I still wash them from time to time, as ANY re-useable product gets dirty, regardless of its material.Yet I'm sure the only time a food spill on a bag could be dangerous is if it came from raw meat or fish juices, but most people would wash the bag if that happened anyway, right?

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      tony0724 - I think everyone has the same problem! LOL! I decided I wasn't going to use plastic bags no matter what. So, it meant that I've taken my food out in the grocery cart a couple of times... But the best tip is to keep a few in the car; a few in a handy location by the front door; and for women, carry at least one bag in your purse!

    • tony0724 profile image

      tony0724 

      9 years ago from san diego calif

      My big problem Is remembering to bring em to the store with me when I go shopping . But thanks for the tips !

    • MoniqueAttinger profile imageAUTHOR

      MoniqueAttinger 

      9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      I really can't believe that the plastics industry has actually sent this study to the government in Canada, for "urgent" review. Honestly! If we keep plastics around and pollute our planet, how can that be a win? I'll definitely be toting around my cloth and reusable bags every time I go shopping...

    • profile image

      gypsy willow 

      9 years ago

      Sensible advice, thanks. Off to the tub with my reusable totes!

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