How To Safely Use Grocery Tote Bags

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

It’s becoming more and more taboo to leave the grocery store with armfuls of plastic bags. In fact, some cities within the United States have banned plastic grocery bags. With a strong push towards green living, more and more shoppers are opting for eco-friendly grocery tote bags. These handy, reusable bags are great for the environment, but they can also be a hazard to your health if they aren’t used and maintained properly. Learn how to properly use and clean your grocery tote bags in this article.

Grocery Tote Bag Risks

A grocery tote bag doesn’t seem like it would be very dangerous. However, these bags can actually become a haven for bacteria. Even bags which appear clean could be home to harmful particles and substances.

In a study funded by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council, a number of reusable grocery tote bags were found to have coliforms, which are a type of bacteria. In addition, mold, yeast and food poisoning-causing microorganisms were found on the bags. The older the bags were, the higher the concentrations of these fungi and bacteria. Meanwhile, a study at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University found that about 12 percent of reusable grocery tote bags were contaminated with E. coli.

[For more, see: Possible Dangers From Bacteria In Reusable Grocery Bags]

There have been other problems linked to dirty grocery tote bags. A 2012 outbreak of norovirus was also linked to these types of bags. In Oregon, an outbreak of this infection was found among a group of soccer players and their chaperones. Health officials tracked the norovirus back to a reusable grocery tote bag. The players and parents had all eaten cookies that had been held in a grocery tote bag in a hotel room. One player had been sick in the hotel bathroom, and the virus got on the bag and contaminated the food inside. Soon after, several other players and chaperones were sick even though they hadn’t had person-to-person contact. When health officials figured out that the grocery tote bag was the culprit and tested it, the virus was still there even though it was two weeks after the players and chaperones had been infected.

This is a serious problem when you consider all the food that could potentially come into contact with these bacteria and other microorganisms. In addition, consider that a third of grocery tote bag users report that they use these bags to transport other items, like books, work documents and children’s toys. All in all, these bacteria could quickly spread to items all over your home and workplace as well as into the food you eat.

How To Safely Use Grocery Tote Bags

There are a few simple things you can do to help reduce the risks that have been associated with contaminated grocery tote bags. Use these steps to protect your health when using these reusable bags:

  1. Designate one tote bag for raw meats, poultry and fish. If possible, place those items in plastic bags before putting them in your tote bags. Make sure you don’t place any ready-to-eat foods in this bag.
  2. Utilize the small plastic bags in the produce section. This will help prevent bacteria and moisture from getting onto your grocery tote bags.
  3. Store your grocery tote bags in a clean, dry location. Consider placing them in a box or drawer so that they don’t get dusty. Don’t leave your empty tote bags in the trunk of your car – studies have found that this can increase the contamination on the bag 10-fold.
  4. If your reusable tote bags get wet (as they might when you carry jugs of milk or fresh produce), allow them to dry out before you store them.

Cleaning Tips

Cleaning your reusable grocery bags is an easy and effective way to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria, viruses and fungi. Unfortunately, only 15 percent of Americans regularly wash their grocery tote bags.

To clean fabric grocery tote bags, just throw them in the washing machine. Grocery tote bags made of plastic material can be soaked in hot, soapy water mixed with either the juice from half a lemon or ¼ cup of vinegar. Hang up wet bags and allow them to dry out completely before storing them.

It’s also important to clean the surfaces that your grocery tote bags are placed on, especially your kitchen counters and tables. For the best results, use a commercial cleaner or diluted bleach (1 quart of water mixed with ½ teaspoon of bleach) and wipe the surface dry with a paper towel.

As for how often to wash your bags, the ideal timing is after every trip to the grocery store. This is definitely the best practice for the bag you’ve designated as the raw meat, poultry and fish bag. Researchers agree that when bags are washed, it effectively decreases contamination by 99.9 percent.

Keep using those grocery tote bags – they are great for the environment and are useful for lugging around lots of groceries. Just remember to keep them clean and to use caution when storing your tote bags.


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