Urgent Care for Reusable Bags

| September-October, 2009

Reusable bags will make you sick! And poison your children!

At least that’s what the plastics industry wants you to believe. Last spring Canada’s National Post reported on a microbiology study funded by the country’s Environment and Plastics Industry Council that uncovered “unacceptably high” levels of bacteria, yeast, mold, and coliform (intestinal bacteria) in reusable bags plucked from Toronto shoppers.

Of the bags tested, seven had bacteria levels exceeding what’s considered safe in drinking water. Six carried mold, five had yeast, and coliform turned up in three samples. The investigation wasn’t exactly expansive, though: Labs tested just 25 bags, and a number of them had overlapping issues. All told, the study uncovered 11 dirty bags.

Once the media got a whiff of coliform, the story proved infectious. “Some bags even contained fecal matter,” hissed Canwest’s Edmonton Journal . Green backlash commenced as cranky bloggers gleefully leapt onto a reason to abandon bags that they never remembered to take into stores anyhow.

It’s tempting to blow off both the media hype and the inconclusive study itself. There are valuable, even urgent lessons to be gleaned, however. For instance, almost all people who handed over bags admitted they had never washed them. Regular washing and thorough drying is nonnegotiable, health experts say. Keeping a dedicated, wipe-able bag for meats is also a good idea, as is segregating bags by use (keep gym shoes out of the grocery tote).

The study also serves as an unintentional reminder to truly reuse reusables and as a coda to Dmitri Siegel’s “Enough with the Cool Totes” (p. 77). Researchers had trouble finding people with bags more than a year old, and most were recent purchases “in keeping with current trends.” In other words, clean or dirty, fashion trumped utility.

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