Reusable shopping bags are a win for the environment, helping you cut down on plastic waste every time you hit the store. And with an increasing number of cities and states banning single-use plastic bags, these handy totes are the way of the future. But without proper cleaning, they could also be harmful to your health. That's because your eco-friendly shopping bags could be carrying loads of bacteria. Think about it: You toss them in your cart at the store, stow them in your car, and set them on the ground while unpacking your grocery haul. Not to mention all the raw meat, produce, and dairy products that could be leaking residue. All that can turn your reusable grocery sacks into a breeding ground for germs and bacteria.
In fact, one study found harmful bacteria lurking in almost all tested reusable bags. Among them, half carried coliform bacteria (which is found in the intestines of humans and animals and indicates fecal contamination) and 12% contained E. coli, another intestinal bacteria that can cause diarrhea and other illnesses. The bags also carried a wide range of enteric bacteria (a form of salmonella) that can cause food poisoning in humans. However, the same study found that only 3% of shoppers who use reusable bags regularly wash them.
Luckily, cleaning your reusable grocery bags is simple (and research shows it reduces bacteria by more than 99.9%). Here's how to keep your shopping bags germ-free.
How to Wash Reusable Canvas Bags
The best way to clean canvas or cloth bags is in the washing machine. First, shake out the bags to remove bits of food, dirt, and other debris. To help prevent the bags from fraying, toss them in with other items, such as towels or linens. To kill bacteria, be sure to use a hot water cycle and detergent. Avoid using bleach, as it could weaken or damage the bag's fibers. You can either line-dry the bags or put them in the dryer. Plan to wash your reusable bags weekly or immediately after any spills or leaks.
How to Wash Recycled Plastic Bags
Bags made from recycled plastics, like polypropylene or PET, need to be washed by hand. After shaking them out, wipe them down with warm, soapy water. Be sure to clean around the inner and outer seams, flipping the bag inside-out if necessary. To help prevent mildew growth, thoroughly wipe down the bag with a dry towel after washing or let it air-dry completely before putting it away.
How to Keep Your Bags Clean
With all bags, avoid cross-contamination by stashing meat, produce, and dry ingredients in separate sacks. Use an insulated bag for your raw chicken and ground beef and wipe down the interior with a disinfecting wipe after each use. You should also reserve each one for a single purpose (don't substitute the same grocery sack as a gym bag or diaper bag, for example). Avoid storing your bags in the car or another warm area, which can speed up bacteria growth, and keep them in a cool, dry place like the pantry instead.