Cruddy Old Bags

Time to wash your reusable grocery bags

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By Lisa Browdy

Health Blogger

I'm very keen on noting that the things we do for our health (i.e. eating organic, biking or walking instead of driving) are usually good for the planet too.

But one instance of sustainable living may not be so good for your health. Your reusable grocery bags are earth-friendly and easy to carry, but you may be dismayed to learn what lurks inside.

According to a 2010 study by researchers at the University of Arizona and the Loma Linda University School of Public Health, the very harmful E.coli bacteria was found in more than 12 percent of the bags they tested. They surveyed shoppers and found that 97 percent of them never washed their reusable bags.

I have to admit I never washed mine either. But when meat juices or milk jugs leak, then bacteria could grow inside them and contaminate your other food items. The fact that my bags stayed in the hot trunk of my car between shopping trips all summer probably made matters worse. Even their outsides were suspect, since they sat in all manner of grocery carts, then landed on my countertop at home.

So, can these bags be washed without falling apart? What are they even made of? There are no washing instructions on them, and I had no idea if they would even survive a go-round in my front-loading machine. But being the roving investigative reporter that I am, I endeavored to find out for myself.

Laundry expert Mary Marlowe Leverette of suggests hand washing your grocery bags after every use. No way was I doing that. I only hand wash my unmentionables.

Most of my bags are apparently made of "composite man-made fibers like nonwoven polypropylene and recycled PET." A couple of them had a hard plastic reinforcement on the bottom, which I removed and wiped down with a disinfectant wipe. I turned them inside out and ran some through a warm wash and others through a cold wash on a normal cycle with clothes I was washing anyway, and both came out fine. My two nylon bags (the ones that can scrunch down into a tiny packet to fit in your purse) washed up well too.

I didn't put any of the bags in the dryer, since they came out barely damp. They air dried and were usable within the hour.

Here are a few tips to prevent cross-contamination between washings:

  • Consider using bags of different colors (or use labels) for carrying meat, produce, dairy, and cleaning supplies.
  • Use different bags for non-grocery use (books, gym clothes, diaper supplies, etc.).
  • Store bags on a hook in the house or garage rather than your car.

Email: Twitter: LisaBrowdy

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Yvonne from Oak Park  

Posted: November 23rd, 2011 9:45 AM

This is great! I will be sure to wash some of my bags now and consider a new location (other than my trunk) to keep them. I have three follow up questions: 1) Do you have any recommendations for washing the plastic-like bags that come from Trader Joe's or Whole Foods? 2) I've heard that the plastic-like bags may contain harmful dyes. Is there any way to know if they do or not? If they do, what should I do? 3) Many of my cloth bags (from Jewel) are falling apart. What should I do?

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