Free Markets, Free People

When going green may not be the healthiest choice

Environmentalists constantly chide us about using plastic or paper grocery bags. “Wasteful” and “bad for the environment” are only two of the criticisms leveled at those of us who use plastic or paper.

But new evidence is emerging that the preferred alternative of the environmental crowd – reusable grocery bags – may not the best or healthiest choice for their family or the environment. In another instance of the law of unintended consequences asserting itself, a person’s attempt to “save the planet” may, in fact, sicken their family and increase their “carbon footprint”.

A recent study found the reusable grocery bags used to carry groceries were loaded with bacteria. Researchers found that people rarely if ever wash their reusable bags. Consequently the tested bags had large colonies of bacteria present. Tests of new plastic or reusable bags found no bacteria present. Included in the bacteria found in some of the used bags tested was the E. coli bacteria (12%). Salmonealla was also present.

All this points to an obvious health hazard for the family. Some would like to ignore it, claiming that the study was funded by a chemical company with ties to the plastic industry and therefore not to be taken seriously. But, as with most arguments of this nature, the proof is in whether the science is good and the findings valid. Reading the study both the science and the findings seem good and valid.

Recently Theresa Marchetta, a Denver, CO reporter, decided to find out for herself. She took a number of used reusable bags to an infectious disease specialist at the University of Colorado Hospital.

Marchetta took the lab results to Dr. Michelle Barron, the infectious disease expert at the University of Colorado Hospital.

"Wow. Wow. That is pretty impressive," said Barron.

Barron examines lab results for a living.

"Oh my goodness! This is definitely the highest count," Barron commented while looking at the bacteria count numbers.

She admitted she was shocked at what was found at the bottom of the bags.

"We’re talking in the million range of bacteria," she said.

Marchetta used swabs provided by a local lab to test several grocery bags for bacteria, mold and yeast.

Three of the samples had relatively low bacteria counts, posing little risk of causing illness. Two were in the moderate range, posing some risk, according to Barron. Two other bags had extremely high counts — 330,000 to nearly 1 million colonies of bacteria. Four of the samples also had relatively high levels of yeast and mold.

While that certainly validated the study’s results, another aspect of Marchetta’s visit to Barron’s lab was just as revealing:

To demonstrate the risk, Marchetta dusted grocery bags with a substance that glows in the dark to see how harmful germs can travel.

With the lights off, it was clear the Glo-Germ had not only stuck to our groceries, it was also on Marchetta’s hands, the counter top, and in the cupboard and refrigerator.

“They like porous surfaces and live longer on plastic,” said Barron, about the bacteria.

Of course, the majority of reusable bags are woven polypropylene. Plastic.

Barron concludes:

"It would be a level of concern getting on your food, on your hands, too," said Barron. "Digging in there, you touch, rub your eyes …all that good stuff.”


"You can have a terrible diarrhea, stomach ache, vomiting. Not a fun thing to have," said Barron.

Or worse if the bacteria is E. Coli.

The solution is to wash the bags after each use. Researchers found that removes about 99% of the bacteria. But that sort of defeats the whole purpose of the reusable bag. It means using the cleansing and bacteria killing effect of laundry detergent. That means introducing phosphates into waste water which, environmentalists will tell you, leads to algae bloom which kills fish and plants. And then there’s the increased carbon footprint that washing the bags brings. Research has revealed that a single load of laundry can emit 1.3 to 1.9 pounds of carbon, depending on what form of detergent is used. If you have to wash your bags once a week, you can do the math.

If all of that’s a concern then one has to ask, what advantage is there to using reusable bags? A person concerned with the environmental impact of using plastic bags is either stuck with risking the health of their family or increasing their carbon footprint and contaminating the water supply.

A true “environmentalist’s” dilemma.



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23 Responses to When going green may not be the healthiest choice

  • Decrease the surplus population.   <- environuts view on the issue.

  • I’ve never been a big fan of plastic grocery bags. Maybe because I grew up with brown paper grocery bags. If packed right, they generally hold more. From my experience baggers often put just a few items in the plastic bags. They clearly have less capacity not to mention that they often tear.
    Why the switch? I suspect it’s economic, in the sense that plastic bags might be cheaper. But what doesn’t make sense is that plastic bags are made from petroleum. You would think as a general rule that paper, from a renewable source, would be less expensive than plastic made from oil/natural gas, a non-renewable source. There’s something here that I must be missing.

  • Look, I like disposable grocery bags, and I hate green smug as much as anyone else.  But to suggest that the bags, even when dirty, are a hazard that could kill your family has got to be an exaggeration.  As nasty as an unwashed bag can be, if you test the grocery bagger’s hands you’ll probably find similar levels of bacteria, and nobody seems to be dying from having their groceries bagged.
    It’s this kind of “increasing your risk of disease by 0.0X% will KILL YOUR FAMILY!!!!1!!!111!!!!” rhetoric that brought us CPSIA and the Safe Cosmetics Act.

  • Let me give you an even better example of this.
    In the old days in Taiwan, restaurants and street vendors used normal bowls and chopsticks. They would wash these (or maybe not) and then re-use them. Sanitary conditions and perhaps the level of hygiene awareness was not high, so the government hit on a great solution: promote disposable chopsticks and disposable styrofoam bowls. This promotion was successful, and only higher-end restaurants used actual china.
    This lasted for a couple of decades, until the present time, when the government discovers Environmentalism. So, then they ban styrofoam, promote the use of actual dishes that can be washed, and also ban free plastic bags for good measure.
    Now, this may not be such a bad thing. You can use paper cups instead, or buy/hire a dishwasher. However, this new policy completely destroyed a company that invested time and money into figuring out how to recycle styrofoam. That must suck big time.
    Oh, and I am sure more people get sick. Don’t worry we have national healthcare – so the stomach meds are “free.”

    • No offense, but while I agree with you about the stupidity of banning disposable dishes, I’d like to see something stronger than “I am sure more people get sick.”  Maybe seeing food poisoning on the rise or something.  I don’t buy the 76 million-case figure in the story.  Either 1 in 4 people in the U.S. gets food poisoning every year (in which case they’re counting all the times when you consume undercooked steak on purpose), or there are about 208,220 very unlucky people who spend all year puking their guts out.
      My mother-in-law is Filipino and the FDA would go into twitching fits if they saw how she handles food, and yet nobody to date has been poisoned by it.  Gagged by how horrible it tastes, sure, but not poisoned.

      • I’m sure they’re counting the 1-2 day bout of moderate diarrhea in that figure.  A couple of Imodium and most of us are good to go in 6-12 hours.  The wrong person and that could be traumatic to their system.

        • Or the 5 day bout I got 3 months ago in Taiwan…hmmmm.

          • I had a week long bout and thensome.
            I guess if you get sick enough you shed your stomach and intestinal lining.  I was eating basically what you might give a 2-3 year old aside from babyfood for a few weeks.

      • My point was that the government promoted disposables to increase food safety, only to decide now to go 180 degrees and in the process screw over a company that had developed a technology based on  the original push.
        I have no stats of sickness. As general education has increased in Taiwan, its possible that they no longer have such a problem with hygiene.

  • A true “environmentalist’s” dilemma.

    There is no “environmentalist’s dilemma” here.  People just have to learn that when you re-use something, it has to be cleaned…  Just like their clothes, toothbrushes, dishes, cutlery, and many other things we re-use in our day to day lives.  There is no “dilemma.”
    Besides, if someone uses “re-usable bags” (whatever happened to just calling it a tote bag?), why does their motivation have to be environmental?  And even if it is environmental, why is that a bad thing?  Isn’t conserving resources a conservative idea?
    My wife and I use tote bags at the grocery.  They hold more items, they don’t tear, and we have an insulated one for frozen items – as it is a fifteen minute drive.  Using tote bags is the smart thing to do.  My wife cleans them after each trip.
    There is no dilemma.
    I find it hard to believe that there was even a study on this – yeah, if you don’t clean something, it gets dirty… duh.
    Jesus H. Christ on a stick.

    • I enjoy mocking enviro-nuts as much as the next meat-loving, carbon-generating gal, but I’ve gotta go with Pogue here.  I have a couple of tote bags and not only are they sturdier and hold more, the handles don’t get into circulation-constricting twists on the way back to the car, nor do they slice my fingers off schlepping a gallon of milk or a few cans of soup.  On the weekend, I just chuck ’em in with whatever laundry I’m doing.  It’s not like there’s a need to do an Extra Special Bag Cleansing load.

  • I also agree that using tote bags is not that much of a hassle. I will wash them once in a while now. Not sure if the added detergent in the water will help the environment. Supposedly if you use a ceramic mug once and then wash it versus using styrofoam, its even-steven environmentally. So, make sure to have second cup or you’re killing Gaia.

  • Today is a -10
    Afterall, isn’t 10-10-10 = -10

  • Well,ladies and germs, the point of the article is NOT convenience, but health, safety, and environMENTALism.
    Yeah, the bags can be washed, but home many think of that?
    Oh, and when wifey and I do our weekly shopping, we have half a grocery cart load, which DOESN’T fit in a carry bag. When we do our bi-weekly, we have a full cart….
    As for paving the planet, how much resources does it take to make a plastic bag? How much to make a canvas bag and re-launder it?
    Oh, yes, the plastic bags are flimsy, but other than the cheapies they have at Wal-Mart, I’ve never had one break since they first came into the stores.

    • My wife and I keep bags in the trunk. Take the cart out to the car. Load the bags in the trunk.

  • One last thing: numerous studies have been done about our waste products. The environs have been all attitter about of “over use” of packaging. But examinations of garbage sites in the US and other countries found that we throw away a lot of packaging, while the rest of the world throws away spoiled FOOD, particularly the counties that can’t afford to waste food.

  • That’s awesome. I love it when the green freaks are proven wrong.

  • Included in the bacteria found in some of the used bags tested was the E. coli bacteria (12%).
    I can’t imagine what some people are using those bags for…

  • There are costs and benefits to everything.  I’m guessing that reusable bags, IF enough people use them on a regular basis, would ultimately reduce the amount of non-degradable trash going into our landfills.  That’s a good thing.

    As for washing the damned things, I agree with Achillea: we all do laundry on a regular basis, so it’s not exactly an expansion of our carbon or phosphate footprints to wash the things every week or two.  Anyway, try reading how much bacteria and other crap is on the average dollar bill if you want a real scare.  Or in the mint bowl at your favorite restaurant, for that matter.  Additionally, I think it’s reasonable to say that the average American kitchen and bathroom are bacteria heavens.  So, while it’s good to be aware of the need to wash the ol’ tote bag AND, gratis, make more fun of the environmentalist whackos, I’m not going to lose too much sleep over the state of the old Ikea bags I use to haul my stuff when I go to Costco.

    On a related note, anybody ever notice how the “green” tote bags are often packaged in non-degradable plastic bags!

  • That is why when they ask me what sort of bag I want to use. I pull out my leather bag. Only by using leather, a totally renewable resource, can we be truly earth friendly.

    • Some poor moo cow died to make that bag!  MURDER!  (You gonna eat that burger?  No?  Pass it over…..)
      Ah, if you need to wash the dang things, put em in with a couple of shirts and pants that you were washing anyway, like we’re gonna stop doing laundry.
      We have  a dozen of the damn things in the trunk of the car… and they go through the average Texas summer day…..well, I know some of the bacteria are heat resistant…but still…..they need to be very heat resistant.  Okay, I know that doesn’t help the  cold weather denizens of our nation.
      What’s the big deal – just because we CAN make and use disposable stuff, doesn’t always mean we always SHOULD make and use disposable stuff.  As it is, many of us are too freaking clean in the first place (the wife’s hand sanitizer rides shotgun wherever she goes).  We’re screwing up our ability to deal with common bacteria.

  • I have found the best way to inhibit bacteria in my re-usable bags is to hang them over a smokey hardwood fire for 30 minutes after each use!—CONEY