April 7, 2020
Shoppers “are being left holding the bag”—the reusable grocery bag, that is—during the novel coronavirus siege. With fear of germs escalating, customers are being asked to leave the reusable, ecofriendly totes at home and are being provided with free recyclable brown paper bags instead, The Huffington Post reports.
After all, who knows when a consumer last washed his or her cloth bag and what pathogens might be riding along with their purchases?
A case in point: The Portland, Oregon-based grocery chain, Green Zebra, prides itself on caring for the environment. The store specializes in sustainably raised food and socially conscious policies—encouraging customers to use reusable bags for their purchases in order to help reduce waste. But lately, they’ve reversed this policy. Due to the coronavirus epidemic, customers are being asked not to bring reusable bags into the store. Instead, they are being provided with recyclable paper bags.
Green Zebra founder and CEO Lisa Sedlar told HuffPost, “In the best of times, reusable bags can be unhygienic because a lot of people don’t wash them with soap and water after each use. During this unprecedented time, it’s life-and-death important to protect everyone’s health, so it wasn’t a hard decision to ban the use of reusable bags.”
Sedlar isn’t alone in worrying about reusable bags. Nationwide, the governors of states such as Massachusetts, Illinois, and Maine are temporarily banning reusable bags in an attempt to protect both customers and grocery store employees from spreading the virus.
Marion Nestle, a professor of Food Studies, Nutrition, and Public Health at NYU, told the online news outlet that this policy makes sense. “The single greatest risk factor for COVID-19 is getting within breathing distance of someone who is carrying the virus. The next greatest is touching a surface they’ve touched recently. In this situation, the theoretical risk goes both ways.
“The grocery store runs the risk that your bag is contaminated and the checkout clerk will touch it, pick up the virus, and pass it on. You run the risk that the checkout clerk is a carrier and touches the bag you take home.”
However, despite the risks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has yet to issue official guidelines when it comes to reusable bags during the coronavirus crisis. In most states, it still is a case-by-case decision left to the stores, themselves. For instance, at many Trader Joe’s locations, customers still are allowed to bring bags from home, provided they’re willing to package their own groceries.
In some cases, banning reusable bags might not even be possible. Karlie Frisbee Brogan works at a large national grocery chain which recently encouraged customers to bring their own bags because they were experiencing a paper bag shortage. She told HuffPost that she was never fond of touching reusable bags people brought from home, even before the coronavirus crisis, “but especially once the pandemic hit, I really didn’t want to handle their unwashed bags.”
It’s hard to blame her. Studies have shown that over 50% of reusable bags contain large quantities of bacteria and many even contain E. Coli and fecal matter. Food safety expert Jeff Nelken advises that, to be safe, reusable grocery bags should be cleaned every time you use them. In the age of the coronavirus, this is even more important. Luckily, he said, it’s very easy to do.
If you have disinfectant wipes on hand, Nelken said, you can use them to give your bags a good wipe down — but make sure they contain disinfectant approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, and to be sure to follow the instructions on the label.
If you don’t have wipes on hand, Nelken told HuffPost, you can make a homemade disinfecting solution with 4 teaspoons of unscented bleach for every 4 cups of water. Mix it in a spray bottle, spray on your reusable bag, and wipe with a towel.
If you’re interested in throwing fabric bags in the washing machine, the CDC recommends washing and drying fabrics at the hottest allowable temperatures and Nelken recommends adding 4 ounces of bleach to your detergent to be extra safe.
Research contact: @HuffPost