Reusable Bags May Hold a Special Surprise for Shoppers

Environmentally conscious consumers that have caught the reusable bag bug might be getting more than they bargained for. A University of Arizona study published last year found that reusable plastic bags may be just as good as carrying around harmful bacteria as groceries.

In a survey of 84 bags in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tuscon, AZ, about half were found to carry coliform bacteria; about 12 percent carried the pathogen E. coli. The authors found that bags contaminated by meat juices or kept in the trunk for extended periods of time were, as one might expect, more likely to house bacterial colonies.

Why are reusable bags so disgusting? Simple: people don’t wash them. The study’s authors noted that interviews with bag owners established that 97 percent did not clean their bags regularly. Unsanitary bags risk cross-contaminating food from subsequent grocery runs, becoming less and less sanitary each time.

The solution to the problem is simple, of course. Cleaning the bags got rid of 99 percent of the bacteria, but it will be interesting to see how much this message gets across as local governments increasingly “nudge” their citizens towards reusable bags through plastic bag bans and taxes.

This isn’t the first time reusable bags have come under fire. Last November, Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), based on a report by the Tampa Tribune, called for a federal investigation of excessive lead levels in some reusable grocery bags. Washington has yet to take any action on that point, but it’s definitely something to watch for as war over grocery bags continues to spread across the country.