Free Markets, Free People

reusable bags

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.