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  • The Pink Elephant Lady

No, Your Reusable Grocery Bags are not Going to Make You Sick

Most people never clean and disinfect their reusable grocery bags (or their steering wheels, cell phones, or desktop computer keyboards for that matter!) But the headlines warning of the potential for contacting serious illness from germ-infested reusable bags stem largely from two small, questionable studies funded by plastics- and fossil-fuel industry groups in response to the threat of increasing plastic bag bans.

Awareness is growing of the worldwide environmental impact of single-use plastic bags. In the early 2000s, discussion began brewing of plastic bag bans. Bangladesh was the first to to implement a plastic bag ban in 2002, after it was discovered that plastic bags played a key role in clogging drainage systems during disastrous flooding. San Francisco became the first U.S. municipality to institute a plastic bag ban in 2007. And in 2014, California became the first state. As of January 2019, such bans have been introduced in 54 countries, and 32 countries impose a charge per bag as opposed to a bag ban.

Garbage litters the river in Dhaka, Bangladesh | Munir uz Zaman/AFP

In response to these bag bans, alarming headlines subsequently warned the public that germs from produce and meat carted home in reusable grocery bags could (theoretically, at least) cause illness. The headlines were the result of a 2010 plastics-industry funded study that (conveniently) came out just about the same time members of the California Legislature, through Assembly Bill 1998, began seriously considering a statewide ban on plastic bags. The report says researchers found E. coli in seven of the bags tested. But the study conveniently doesn't identify the type of E. coli in the bags. Most strains of E. coli are actually harmless and are an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dr. Susan Fernyak, director of San Francisco’s Communicable Disease and Control Prevention division, said, "Your average healthy person is not going to get sick from the bacteria that were listed (in the study)."

"I think important points and information was presented in a way that is somewhat misleading," she says of the report.

Another study conducted in 2012 came to conclusions similar to the plastics-industry funded study. This new study was funded by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), a 'free-market think tank' with funders that include Exxon Mobil Corp. and the fossil-fuel kings Charles and David Koch. PERC regularly publishes articles trivializing and denying the scientific consensus on climate change; PERC fellowship director and senior fellow Daniel K. Benjamin even goes so far as to argue that global warming will be beneficial to mankind and improve agricultural output.

The study alleged that emergency room visits increased after San Francisco implemented its plastic bag ban. Recall, however, that a basic tenet of good science and good reasoning is that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. It is a logical fallacy to assume that because two events occurred at the same time, one must have caused the other. For example, the number of films Nicholas Cage appears in in a given year correlates with pool drownings! (Go to for other fun but meaningless statistical correlations, such as per capita cheese consumption and the number of people who die by becoming entangled in their bed sheets!)

Furthermore, most surfaces we come in contact with are 'covered in germs' - we're exposed to millions of germs every single day. The vast majority of these germs are harmless. It may sound gross to hear that something is 'covered in germs' like our toilet seat, keyboard, or cellphone, but the reality is that MOST of what we touch is, too! The mere presence of germs does not mean illness is imminent.

Cleaning Reusable Bags

If you're really worried about your bags passing along germs, there are steps you can take.

Cotton reusable bags can be machine-washed, but some bags can become misshapen from machine washing. Most reusable grocery bags are actually made of plastic, from a type of material called nonwoven polypropylene. This type of material is unsuitable for machine washing. Insulated bags are also unsuitable for machine washing.

Insulated bags and nonwoven polypropylene bags can be sprayed down with our No-Rinse Heavy Duty Disinfectant Spray, an EPA-registered product that kills 99.999% of bacteria that cause foodborne illness. Spray bags thoroughly and completely and allow to dry.

We send a free reusable bag with our logo with every new order!

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