Reusable shopping bags need monthly bath

Posted July 04, 2010, at 10:12 p.m.

Think globally, act locally.

How many times have you heard that phrase and wondered, “What can I do?” What could make a difference in fossil fuel use, litter across the landscape and mountains of trash in landfills?

Lots of people are turning to reusable bags when they shop. They may be reacting to estimates that hundreds of millions of plastic shopping bags are used once and thrown away every year. They may believe (correctly, we think) that carrying a reusable bag to the supermarket or farmers’ market is a way of acting locally.

But they may not be doing enough, and their health may suffer as a result.

The industry that produces those millions of bags every year is responding to consumer sentiment, ingrained by years of ad messages. Use it once and throw it away was long the unwritten mantra of Madison Avenue. From paper towels to fast foods, convenience ruled our disposable society.

Growing concern over the environment changed the message. The green twinkle in the ad executives’ eyes now is all about grass and trees (although, ultimately, it’s still about money). While the ads don’t push us all the way to World War II urgings to “use it up or make do,” they prompt us to buy stuff that’s “environmentally friendly” in its making or disposal.

And this is where those canvas, string and woven reusable bags come in. How better to show our concern for the Earth than to keep the hundreds — even thousands — of plastic bags we might use yearly out of the waste stream. Most bags feature some variant of the universal recycle symbol that identifies the bearer as someone who cares.

The problem comes when we use those bags too often, or store them carelessly. A study last spring in Canada of a “scientifically meaningful sample” of reusable and single-use bags showed more than 60 percent of the reusables harbored bacteria. Nearly 30 percent passed the level considered safe for drinking water.

Health risks in the Canadian study included bacterial boils, allergic reactions, triggering of asthma attacks and ear infections. A recent smaller study involved swabbing 84 bags, and more than half contained bacteria, including coliform. That suggests the contamination came from meat or uncooked food.

This study was funded by the American Chemistry Council, which opposes a move in California toward a total ban on plastic shopping bags. We’ll sidestep that debate and others on fees, mandates for biodegradable plastic and other waste-cutting schemes.

Here is where the rest of the local action comes in. Reusable bags can hold water much better than plastic; they need to be washed regularly, either by hand or in the washer.

Washing removes virtually all the bacteria and greatly cuts the risk of spreading them. Give the same treatment to cloth lunch bags, and use bags that carry food for that purpose only.

Jason Bolton of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension says washing the bags at least once a month is key. He suggests having meats and uncooked goods wrapped separately before being placed in the reusable bags.

Enjoy the foods you love, and carry them in a way that makes you feel good. But make sure to guard yourself and your family against unwanted side effects from your efforts.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s membership-funded, nonprofit consumer organization. Individual and business memberships are available at modest rates. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for more information, write: Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, or go to http://necontact.wordpress.com.

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