How-to Clean Your Reusable Bag!

Do you clean your reusable bags? Probably not. And get this: they are disgusting!!! Disposable bags are amazing yes, they carry more, look better and don’t snap in half leaving you standing like a fool in the parking lot with your smashed carton of eggs and spilled milk.  But have you ever considered why plastic bags got popular in the first place?  One word: disposable.

Think of your reusable bags are like undergarments. They need to be cleaned, they carry a lot of dirt an bacteria around and can eventually contaminate food (I guess if you were carrying food around in them).

Just take a minute to think about how freakin’ dirty these things get!  You bring your meat, cheese, vegetables and fruit in them, week after week.

They just sit there, you think they are invincible.  Well, they are not.  Gross. You should be shivering right now!  If you are interested in seeing this study, here’s the link.

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Studies have been done showing a concentration of mold, yeast and bacteria found in these reusable bags.  If you carry meat in your bags you could also potentially expect salmonella or e-coli.

In this study, there’s a stat out saying that only 15% of Americans wash their bags.  And you know what not washing your bags lead to?  A hot case of food poisoning. Have you ever had food poisoning?  Do you know what happens to your body?

OK, enough paranoia propaganda.  Here are a few things you can do to keep them clean and bacteria-free:

1) Colour code your bags for meat, poultry, fish, dairy, prepared food and produce.  This will help avoid cross-contamination.  You can just use bags from different stores as opposed to colour code, or even write with permanent marker your labels on the bags for easy separation.  

2) Place all raw foods in plastic bags prior to placing them in the tote bag (doesn’t this sound counterintuitive to a no plastic bag agenda?).  

3) Try not to leave bags in the trunk.  A study was done showing a warmer trunk temperature are an excellent breeding ground for even more bacteria; to the tune of ten times the initial count in just 2 hours.  Oh boy.

4) When you are not using the bags, store them in a clean, dry space.  If it’s a damp, warm space then bacteria is bound to re-appear.

5) And finally, clean your bags well.  So here’s a safe way to do this that will get rid of bacteria and preserve the bag.

For starters, there are two general kinds of bags: fabric or nylon totes and recycled plastic.

Fabric and nylon totes are easy, you throw them in the wash with towels or jeans, let your machine do the work. Bacteria, stains and smells will be dealt with during the wash cycle.

If the bag is made out of recycled plastics, fill your sink with hot water and add 2 tbsp of dish soap and 1 cup of hydrogen peroxide.  Soak this for 15 minutes.  The soap will remove dirt and smells and the hydrogen peroxide will disinfect the bags and assist with any stubborn stains.  Drain the sink and then wring the bags dry.  Hang them up and let them air dry, they dry really quick.  If you put these bags in the washing machine, they’ll start to pill.

I think it’s important to be environmentally conscious but I have to say, looking at some of these stats from this study, I’m pretty grossed that I even use these bags and kind of miss the ease of plastic bags right about now (not to mention the free supply of trash can bags).  I wasn’t washing my bags often and clearly there’s a lot of extra work required to maintain these tote bags. However, times are changing and this is the more socially responsible thing to do so I’ll just have to go with the times and wash up!

Why do I use these bags?

Well, I live just outside of Toronto and the city has made some changes to our shopping bag habits over the past year or so. The Mayor wanted to get people out of their wasteful plastic bag habits and now we have to pay 5 cents for plastic grocery bags (known here as the Bag Tax). This has become a very controversial issue in Toronto, not because it’s not a good environmental initiative but because the store owners get to pocket that 5 cents, so it becomes additional revenue for them. Torontonians were initially promised the money would go toward other environmental initiatives so everyone’s up in arms over this nickel-per-bag issue. The city has no way to tally revenues from bag sales so they just left it in the hands of the store owner to remit the money (not happening). City councillors are getting loads of complaints from their constituents because of this and frankly, a lot of people see it as a bit of a joke.

That aside, it has worked to a degree because people all across the Greater Toronto Area are using reusable bags/totes and less plastic bags (and interestingly, the sale of packaged kitchen garbage bags has mysteriously gone up). Companies are giving these tote bags out as promotional items (a la Lulu Lemon) and grocers are charging about a buck if you want to buy one.  So the moral of the story is, get into politics or open a store in Toronto and sell lots of bags, then retire in Hawaii. Oh yeah, and wash your reusable bags!



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  1. Hi! Good question. They need to be washed for sure but not this way. What you can do is take a disinfectant spray and spray the interior bag with it. (which usually has a smooth interior and smooth or cloth (or woven) exterior). Leave the solution on for 5-10 minutes and then wipe clean. Clean the exterior the same way if the bag is not cloth on the exterior. If it is, then spot clean it with dish soap and water where required. I don’t know for certain, but I don’t think the insulation should be immersed in water which I would suggest this method as opposed to any other method described above.

  2. What about insulated bags? I use a couple of insulated bags for meats and refrigerated items. Do I wash them like the recycled plastics bag?

    Thanks in advance!


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