Reusable bags may make your family sick

Apr 19, 2013 at 3:00 p.m. ET

A growing number of stores and shoppers are banning plastic bags in an effort to be “green” but the reusable bags used as alternatives could pose a surprising risk of their own.

Woman with green tote

Plenty of moms think they're doing the right thing by avoiding plastic bags but unless you are thoroughly washing your reusable bags (who knew?), you could be bringing dangerous bugs into your homes.

However you decide to transport your food from the store to your kitchen, it’s important to be informed about the positives and negatives of plastic bags and reusable bags, both for the environment and for your family’s health.

The choice

Transporting groceries has never been more contentious. Gone are the days when a simple question (“Paper or plastic?”) would complete your shopping trip. Today, moms must ponder the potential long-term impact of their bag choice. Some of us still have the ability to make a decision at the checkout, mainly between reusable bags or their plastic counterparts. Before your next shopping trip, take some time to truly research the options. We know plastic bags are convenient and functional but we often forget that they are also recyclable. We know that reusable bags can reduce the need for plastic and are safe but often forget that they need to be cleaned.

Lurking germs

Reusable bags seem to be growing in popularity, especially with environmentally-conscious moms. We collect these bags and carry them with us, often storing them in the trunks of cars, in case an opportunity to use them arises. While reusable bags are certainly handy, they can also be breeding grounds for nasty germs if not thoroughly washed on a regular basis. In fact, an outbreak of norovirus in 2012 was traced back to a contaminated reusable shopping bag, according to the Oregon Public Health Department.

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Two ways to green

Both reusable and plastic bags can be considered environmentally friendly, but for very different reasons. Reusable bags can reduce the need for additional bagging options at the store, are usually sturdy and do double-duty when items other than food need to be transported. Plastic bags, when collected and recycled, can be used to make backyard decks, playground equipment, benches, floor mats and a number of other products.

Discover tips to finally organize your recycling >>

The facts

If you choose the reusable bag option, there are steps you must take to make sure the bags you use are safe:

If plastic bags are more your speed, defend your choice with confidence:

  • Identify a location that accepts plastic bags for recycling (according to a recent study, 91-93 percent of the U.S. population has access to plastic bag recycling) and drop off your bags often.
  • Repurpose your bags for trash, packing material or storage.
  • Over 30,000 people are employed by the plastic bag manufacturing and recycling industries in the U.S.

Read more about green living

Fun ways to teach your kids to "go green"
How to involve kids in green choices
Start composting with your kids