Are Reusable Grocery Bags Safe After the Coronavirus?

Mayte WaliLast Updated Sep 15, 2020 12:40:28 PM ET
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As the coronavirus rapidly spread across the United States and around the world, it swept uncertainties and questions into our minds, too. News stories came out daily, all with changing information as scientists learned more about the virus. Soon, we discovered that the coronavirus could potentially live on surfaces for varying lengths of time, and people grew anxious about touching certain things and using particular items like reusable grocery bags. States like Connecticut, which typically levied a surcharge for plastic bags or enforced plastic bag bans, lifted those regulations during the pandemic in response — just in case reusable bags could transmit the virus and contaminate other surfaces. As it turns out, this decision was a smart one.

If you’re an eco-conscious shopper who frequently carries reusable bags, you may have some concerns about whether they’re safe to use as the pandemic continues. Learn more about the coronavirus and how it relates to shopping carefully, including the type of bags you should (and shouldn’t) shop with.

How Long Does COVID-19 Live on Surfaces?

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This novel strain of coronavirus is caused by a virus scientists have labeled SARS-CoV-2. Like all individual strains of viruses, this one has particular qualities that distinguish it from other similar pathogens. This includes its lifespan.

To understand whether reusable grocery bags are safe to use during the pandemic, it’s important to know how long the coronavirus can survive on surfaces before it’s no longer infectious. If the virus can survive on different surfaces, those surfaces can potentially spread the virus once they become contaminated with it. In the case of the novel coronavirus, the type of material the surface is made from matters. Thus, the material your reusable grocery bag is made from is also important.

Researchers are learning more about the novel coronavirus regularly, and initially it was unknown how long the virus could survive on different surfaces. However, two studies, both published in peer-reviewed medical journals The Lancet and the New England Journal of Medicine, found that SARS-CoV-2 was more viable and remained on plastic and stainless steel for around 72 hours. It also remained on clothing for up to two days, and this applies to canvas fabrics that some reusable bags are made from, too. Cardboard was one of the safest materials; SARS-CoV-2 was only viable on it for up to 24 hours.

The virus doesn’t survive as well on porous materials and seems to live better on smooth, even surfaces. Based on this, the reusable grocery bags made of strong plastic differ in potential transmissibility from those made of canvas.

What’s the Situation With Grocery Bags?

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With the knowledge that the coronavirus can remain viable on surfaces for up to several days, experts have suggested that using reusable grocery bags while the coronavirus is still a major concern is a bad idea. Unfortunately, there’s no clear way to know whether your bags have been contaminated with the virus or not. Because the virus does spread so easily, it’s wise to take extra precautions to avoid becoming sick.

Experts have been looking at the safety of reusable grocery bags for some time, well before the coronavirus outbreak began. A 2011 study published in Food Protection Trends found that 99% of reusable grocery bags contained some form of bacteria, and 8% of reusable grocery bags contained E. coli specifically. A 2018 study published by the National Environmental Health Association found that contaminated reusable grocery bags have a strong likelihood of transmitting a pathogen to all surfaces a shopper touches. Studies have also found that leather purses, which are often placed on the tops of shopping carts or the payment counters on checkout lanes, are prone to spread bacteria, primarily due to the nature of the material itself.

Many businesses have asked shoppers to avoid bringing reusable bags into the store as the pandemic remains active — they’ve proven to be excellent carriers of pathogens, which may be due in part to people’s sanitation habits. But more importantly, contaminated reusable bags can pose health threats to employees and other shoppers by transferring germs to high-contact areas like checkout counters and conveyor belts.

So, it isn’t only a matter of potentially bringing the virus home in your shopping bag; that same bag could put others at risk, too. The bottom line on plastic reusable shopping bags and leather purses? Leave them at home until the coronavirus is well under control.

Shopping Safely With Reusables

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If you do plan to use reusable bags as the pandemic continues, use cotton or canvas bags ― for several reasons. The novel coronavirus only lives for up to 48 hours on cloth. Also, cotton and canvas are easier to wash or spot clean than plastic grocery bags, which are more difficult to sanitize using heat. You need hospital-grade disinfectant to sanitize reusable plastic bags, and merely spraying them doesn’t eliminate the germs that build up in the bags’ crevices and on their handles.

You can safely wash reusable fabric bags in your washing machine on the hottest water setting. You should also use the hottest dryer setting for the bags and make sure they’re completely dry before you remove them for use again. Wash and dry them immediately after every outing you bring them on.

Other safe shopping tips include washing your hands before and after grocery shopping, sanitizing shopping carts before using them, sanitizing your hands after touching common surfaces like PIN pads and cart handles, and disinfecting groceries after purchasing them. Dispose of plastic or paper grocery bags in the trash or recycling bin immediately after bringing your purchases home. Do not reuse them during this active outbreak.