BYOB: It Also Means "Bring your own bag."

grocery bagThe movement to ban those flimsy thow-away plastic grocery bags has recently come to Chicago and one of it's neigboring suberbs, Evanston. I have  mixed feelings about this required change in my bagging habits. I know less plastic makes for a healthier enviroment in many ways, but I also fear that reusing the same grocery bag many times can lead to an increase in cases of food-borne illness. Our Shelf Life Adivce Advisory Board scientists agree (and comment throughout this article). Let's review what's wrong with plastic and consider how these new bans, now in effect in well over 100 U.S. cities, are altering our grocery-carrying behavior. This article concludes with tips on how to properly care for various types of reusable bags and how to remember to bring a reusable bag(s) to the grocery store.


Plastics and paper:


What's wrong with plastic?  You've probably heard these accusations already: plastic is overcrowding our land fills, killing our marine animals (who eat it thinking it's food), polluting our air and food with toxic chemicals, and much more.  The Chicago Tribune has  pointed out that lightweight plastic bags are also gumming up the equipment in recycle centers. 


If you want to confront a passionate view of the dangers of plastic, read Beth Terry's book Plastic Free: How I kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too.   The author is not insisting that YOU live a plastic-free life (which isn't easy), but she is urging her readers to, at the very least, take the first, easiest step in that direction by turning down those plastic bags most supermarkets give out and, instead, handing the cashier the all-cloth or insulated bag(s) you brought from home. Better yet, from the store's point of view, buy one or two bags that are for sale at the check-out.)


Some stores are still saying to customers: "Plastic or paper?"   Of course, both are bad choices. Those flimsy, lightweight plastic grocery bags, in addition to creating litter and being generally harmful to the environment, tear easily.  The same disadvantages exist for paper. Paper uses up trees. Trees are a renewable resource, but converting trees into paper, Terry  says, is an "incredibly energy and water intensive process." Food process engineer Dr. Tim Bowser dislikes paper bags for this reason: "A sweaty gallon of milk will frequently tear right through a grocery-store paper bag."  I share his dislike for paper bags, having recently had a paper bag let me (and my groceries) down.  The groceries made a not-so-neat path from my car to my house.


The old-fashioned paper bag is at least disposable, eliminating the need to clean and sanitize. However, you do need to learn how to carry it properly: support the bottom; Carry it by the top and you're likely to wind up feeding the sidewalk.  Yet,  if you are determined to use something disposable rather than reusable, paper seems the best choice.  These days, using plastic invites the wrath of the world.


 Here's one paper alternative to the bag: food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein often collects paper cartons from the store for his groceries to be packed in and then recycles the cardboard. 


So how do I feel about reusable plastic grocery bags?  Ambivalent.  Recently, Jewel Osco gave me a sturdy, large one.  (Thank you, Jewel.) The front said: "I'M SAVING THE PLANET. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? DON'T FORGOT YOUR RREUSABLE BAG WHEN YOU SHOP. THIS BAG CAN BE REUSED 125 TIMES.  Well, I'm not fond of getting a lecture from my grocery bag. Thankfully, food scientist Dr. Catherine Cutter says she doubts my plastic bag will really hold up for 125 trips home from the grocery store. I think a cloth bag would be more likely to do that.


The right care for any type of bag:


Reusable bags can harbor pathogens that can cross-contaminate foods and cause food-borne illnesses. Consumers need to be diligent about washing and sanitizing their reusable bags. If you don't believe me, take a look at these comments from experts: first, plastics enemy Beth Terry and then this site's Advisory Board, 5 faculty members at institutions of higher learning.


Beth Terry, the great enemy of plastic, admits that cloth bags can be a problem: "A 2010 study of reusable shopping bags collected from consumers entering grocery stores  in three major cities found that all of the bags contained high levels of bacteria and half of the bags contained E. coli." The same study found that bacteria levels could be reduced 99.9 percent by hand or machine washing."  However, according to the website Food Safety News, most people are not aware of the risk; 97% of those surveyed said they had NEVER washed their reusable grocery bags.


Dr. Regenstein says, "It's not good to use unwashed bags for any groceries that are not packaged. A watermelon can contaminate your bag. But I don't think all grocery bags need to be washed after each use--only those carrying open or leaky food, or those that are in some other way possibly contaminating." But Dr. Regenstein does see a light at the end of the tunnel:  "Work on good agricultural practices, better training of produce handlers, and, most important, proper handling of products in the supermarket should help counteract the risks of reusable bags."


Food scientist Dr. Karin Allen says, "When I see someone put fresh meat in a reusable bag, my stomach turns." She explains why. "If  juices leak from the meat and the bag is not washed and sanitized, E. coli and other pathogens can cross-contaminate the food that's put into that bag on the next shopping trip."


Dr. Bowser says, "People could have an increased chance of becoming ill from carrying food in reusable bags, especially if they don't follow good handling procedures. I don't believe that many people will clean their reusable bags properly. The entire bag should be washed in hot soapy water to remove any soils on the inside and outside.  The next step would be a good rinse, which I would follow with a sanitizing spray or a dip in bleach water [1 gallon of water containing 1-2 teaspoons of bleach]." 


Dr. Cutter (commenting on reusable plastic bags) says:  "Unless I paid for it, I'm not sure it's worth my time or energy to wash it out or wipe it out. I'd use it once and then either recycle it or use it to pick up dog poop or scoop the cat litter boxes! If I decided to keep it, I'd probably clean it with disinfecting wipes or some kind of antimicrobial spray and paper towels."


Food scientist Dr. Clair Hicks says,: "A cloth bag would be even riskier than a cutting board.  Once a leaky tray of chicken was placed in the bag, one could envision salmonella contamination and, over time, mold.  A good  recommendation would be to wash the bag in hot water and dry it in a dryer frequently, particularly after refrigerated meats are transported in it."


If you're using an insulated bag (or bags):


Dr. Bowser says, "Insulated bags are highly recommended during the summer months for refrigerated or frozen foods.  If it takes awhile to reach home, an insulated carrier will minimize the temperature rise, thus helping to maintain quality and shelf life." 


BUT that insulated bag must also be cleaned and sanitized regularly.  According to Dr. Cutter, you can put it in the washer on the gentle cycle and dry it in the sun.  If the insulated bag is made of material that can't be machine-washed and dried, it can be hand-washed and air-dried.


You may not need to buy those bags the supermarket dangles before your eyes. Stores and conventions often give them away.  Look around in your closets. You probably have a few giveaways hanging there. If so, and if they don't look alike, you can use one for nonedible grocery items; that one won't need frequent washing. It's also a good idea to have a separate bag for grocery items that contain strong chemicals.  You might find it helpful to label (with permanent ink) your grocery bags this way: produce, meats, non-edibles and cleaning supplies. Large labels will help baggers get each type of groceries into  the right bag.


Getting bags to the store and storing them properly at home


Dr. Bowser admits that he has a hard time remembering to bring reusable bags with him to the store. Perhaps you have the same problem and haven't found a solution. If they're already in your car when you pull into the supermarket lot, it will probably occur to you to take the bags into the store with you. However, the California Department of Public Health (in its online tips on proper care of reusable bags) says NOT to do that: "In the warmer months, the increased temperatures can promote the growth of bacteria that may be present in the bags. "Similarly, says (in large, capital letters), "STORE REUSABLE BAGS AT HOME IN A COOL, DRY PLACE, NOT IN THE CAR."  


The California Department of Public Health adds that, at home,  grocery bags should be stored away from kids, pets, and chemicals.


Here are some alternative suggestions for remembering to take reusable bags along to the store:  


1) Get the bags out the night before you're going shopping, and put them by your front door or near your grocery list, jacket, or car keys--whatever you're going to take with you.


2) Add "TAKE BAG" to your grocery list. or  


3) Write yourself a large reminder--with a red pen, and put it next to your car keys or eyeglasses.


Eco-friendly reusable bags:


If you're devoted to protecting and preserving the environment, plastics author Beth Terry suggests that you purchase reusable bags made of a natural, organic, plastic-free material.  "I don't generally advocate purchasing conventional cotton products because cotton is typically grown using a lot of petrochemical pesticides and fertilizers.  But organic cotton is a good choice.  And recycled cotton uses even fewer resources. Hemp requires much less water than cotton [to grow]." These are some of her favorite brands: ECOBAGS (made from organic cotton, recycled cotton, and hemp blends) and Project GreenBag (made in the U.S. from organic cotton). Terry also likes those string bags so widely used in Europe.


In her book, she also talks about all the bags she doesn't like, which include, of course, reusable bags made with plastic.  She and Dr. Regenstein agree that a ban on all plastic bags would be even better for the environment than the current bans on lightweight plastic. But just think what an adjustment that would be for people.


Please comment: What kinds of bag(s) do you bring your groceries home in? Tell us why.




Karin E. Allen, Ph.D., Utah State University, Dept. of Nutrition, Dietetics, and Food Sciences


Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D. , Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


Catherine N. Cutter, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University, Dept. of Food Science


Clair L. Hicks, Ph.D., University of Kentucky, Dept. of Animal and Food Sciences


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science  "Reusable Shopping Bags: Safe?" - .Ue6doBZQ0yE


Chicago Tribune, "In Chicago, going's tough carrying on without plastic" Business section, p.4, August 4, 2015. 



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