Reusable Grocery Bags: Are They Making You Sick?

Do you wash your reusable grocery bags? I don’t, well at least I didn’t until my mom showed me an article in her local paper about the bacteria lurking in these bags.

I use my bags for groceries, library books, bathing suits, overnights, school supplies and more. I never wash my bags, I never even thought about it, until now. After reading the article I realized that one week the store might put beef or chicken in the same bag that the next week holds fruit or toys. Yuck!

I know most  families battle the stomach bug every once in a while and who knows how many of those bugs were caused by contamination in reusable bags.

According to a recent study:

  • 97% of shoppers do not wash their bags
  • 75% don’t use separate bags for meats and produce
  • 30% use bags to carry things other than groceries

“Our findings suggest a serious threat to public health, especially from coliform bacteria including E. coli, which were detected in half of the bags sampled,” said Charles Gerba, a UA professor of soil, water and environmental science and co-author of the study. “Furthermore, consumers are alarmingly unaware of these risks and the critical need to sanitize their bags on a weekly basis.”

I have done all of these things, but not anymore. From now on I plan to:

  • Wash bags after trips to the store
  • Keep grocery bags separate from non grocery bags
  • Label bags for meat and produce and keep them separate

The study also found that storing bags in the trunk of a car can lead to increased bacteria growth. While it is convenient to store bags in the car, storing them in the house is better for your health.

From now on I’m washing my bags between trips, how about you?


  1. oh gross!
    thanks for the tips! I use my Trader Joe’s bags for meats since they are taller and we buy the family meat packs. I use canvas bags for produce since we go to the farmer’s markets to buy those there. And I totally have separate bags for when I’m shopping for clothes or making a quick non-food trip to Target or anywhere else.

  2. Cherrill says:

    I just read about this on sparkpeople. They also suggest not keeping the bags in your car due to the heat. I love my bags!

  3. I do wash them, but mine look awful afterwards. Maybe I need to use a different setting on the dryer?

  4. Oh, I never would have thought to wash them! I do try to use certain ones for the same things all the time, but now I’ll probably just wash them regularly! Thanks for passing this on.

  5. I can’t say I’ve thought about washing them either. But, I do always ask that meat be put in plastic bags. I know it’s not very “green”, but it’s a whole lot healthier.

  6. Ewww. Might just go pop them in there right now!

  7. I don’t understand the point of using these bags. (OK, go ahead and pounce), but first and before I get beat by the enviro stick. I ask, where do you put your garbage? Cause you need plastic bags to put in the little bins, do you buy little garbage bags? If so whats the point then of not using plastic bags at the store and reusing them?

    Our grocery store charge 5 cents for a bag, way cheaper than 10 for 2.99 if you buy the ones made for the bin

    Just sayin….

    Ok go ahead, I am ready to take it.

    • Christina says:

      I rarely need small plastic bags. I really only use them for on-the-go diaper changes, and occasionally for wet bathing suits or other random uses. I seem to pick up more than enough through random trips (like when I forget my bags, and when I have more groceries than bags).

      I do get my raw meat bagged in plastic (which I throw out once I unpackage the meat).

      I love reusable bags from a practical standpoint, too. They hold a lot more than plastic bags, and they loop over my shoulder – so I usually can carry all my groceries and my toddler into the house in one trip. With plastic bags, it usually took two or three trips.

    • I agree that everyone makes too much of the plastic bags. I think it is just a way for the stores to not have to pay for them as they used to. If they make us think that we are being green and feel guilty if we want a bag then they can get away with charging us 5 cents for a bag. I think it is a scam. I use mine for garbage also.

  8. I never even thought about it. Thanks for the tip.

  9. Oh my! I’m off to wash my bags! Yuck.

  10. I threw mine out. I was sick to my stomach when I came home from grocery shopping and there were worms working their way through the fabric of my bags. I switched back to paper and plastic for groceries. I do reuse or recycle them. It’s the best I can do after that experience. I do use reusable bags for clothing, shoes, etc.

    • I should add, mine were clean, almost new, stored in my car, meats put in plastic bags, everything stored separately, etc.

  11. Flylady suggests keeping them separate for separate uses, tying a green ribbon on the produce one and so on. Good idea to wash!!

  12. Oh my goodness! I need to wash mine too!

  13. @Samer-I do not use store plastic grocery bags for trash or buy little trash bags. I do use tall kitchen bags in the kitchen only. For my small trash cans in other rooms besides kitchen I bought stainless steel cans and hid them inside planters to make them pretty and match my decor. I empty as needed and when I clean the room I take the can out and sanitize it. Because those cans are in the bedroom, living room, and bathroom, I’m emptying mostly tissues and paper trash because we don’t let food go all over the house. Additionally, we compost and recycle so the big bag in the kitchen gets mostly unusable plastic anyway. That’s how we do it.

  14. I’ll be washing mine today! 🙂 I do put meats that might drip (think chicken, etc.) inside plastic bags, but given I’ve been using the same bags for YEARS, they are probably no doubt gross! Good grief! There never even occured to me. Thanks!

  15. Emily Christensen says:

    While I do think regular washings are probably good for the bags I have read criticisms of this article as well. Yes, they found bacteria, but it was not the same e. coli that makes people sick. And it was in very small amounts. But, that worm story makes me quite sick. Ewwwww. I do like the idea of using ribbon to differentiate the bags, but I doubt the check out people at my grocery store would pay much attention.

  16. Shannon says:

    I saw this article, too…just when you think you’re doing something good…I’ve started using my shopping bags for non-food items and just have the groceries bagged in the plastic grocery bags. We do reuse the plastic ones either in the trash cans or we take them in for recycling.

  17. Thanks so much for posting this……I keep saying I’m going to wash mine, but honestly, I just get so busy I forget! Definitely going to use separate ones for meat…..the plasticy kind so i can use my clorox wipes on them! I shared this on my FB too!

  18. I guess I should wash my bags, lol


  19. I actually do wash mine. I was surprised to read the article a few weeks ago in our paper that most people do not!

  20. Oh gross! I admit I have separate bags for the farmers market, but for shopping at the regular grocery store I don’t. I also store mine in the house, which is why I forget them half the time, and I’ve been meaning to store them in the car, now I guess I won’t. Yecky!

    ~Kelli @ Smidgens

  21. I am in the rare 3% I wash mine. I have a cooler bag and a red bag for meats. i sometimes forget and if i get the plastics bags we reuse them for groceries or packing boxes. i have gotten funny looks when I take my reusable bags in. Not all people have caught on. Also I have diffrent color bags too. Thanks for the tips.

  22. I don’t wash mine but again I don’t use them for meat or anything else but groceries. If I buy meat..I put it in a bag from the store. Then I DON’T place that bag in a reusable one. That way I know the only thing in my reusable bags were boxes , cans , bags, jars, other dry goods etc.. meaning I do get a few bags from the store for other uses but no juices or cross contamination in my reusable ones.

  23. My parents panicked when they read about this a few weeks ago since they know that I am pretty good about using reusable bags. (They insisted that I stop using them! What?!) I’m very surprised that so few people thought to wash their bags! I have always washed my bags; they go right into the same rag pile as my dish cloths do so they get the hot water + bleach treatment. I do like the idea of labeling separate bags for meat though.

  24. My favorite store offers the reusable bags in several colors. I choose to bag my own, and I put “non-meat cold stuff” in one color, meats in another, and everything else in a third color. It helps with bringing it all in the house too–this color goes to the pantry, this one goes right to the kitchen to be refrigerated, etc. I just tell my kids which color goes where and they move the bags right along.

    They line-dry fairly decently, and those inserts for the bottom wash up nicely in the kitchen sink with dish soap (add a shot of bleach if you want!)

  25. I “washed” one of mine for the first time last week. I made the mistake of not putting the chicken in plastic, and it leaked all over the inside of my insulated bag and was making a mess on the floor (while I was putting the groceries away). I don’t know if I could run it through the washing machine or not since I don’t want to ruin the insulation stuff, but I did put it in the sink and fill it partially with hot water + bleach and let that soak through until it was empty. I think I’ll start washing mine now, though 🙂 And making sure meats get in either their own specific bag or in plastic.

  26. Don’t wash the insulated ones — at least the one I have from Giant didn’t hold up well when I washed it — even on gentle. All the insulation tore. I just have them put the meat in plastic bags. I reuse those for dog duty anyway.

  27. STEPHANIE says:

    I wash the ones I can wash, air dry and then hand clean and lysol the ones that I can’t. I always have any meat (which is not much) put in plastic bags and then throw those out when I get home.

  28. i’ll wash my bags sometimes but not after every use. almost all of the stuff i put in my bags is still inside another interior package, i’m more concerned about the germs coming from the kitchen floor where i usually keep my bags than coming from the stuff i put in them.

  29. Ack! I never even thought about that! Wow. I have some more washing to do.

  30. Reusable bags are also good to use for gift bags instead of paying just as much for a pretty paper gift bag that gets thrown away.

  31. My primary re-use for plastic bags is bagging stuff that people buy when I host a garage sale. I don’t use them for small trash cans. I do use them for cleaning out the cat’s litter box, but the amount I get from the store from times when I forget my reusable bags or when my bags don’t hold everything I’ve purchases are more than enough to cover my other plastic bag needs.

    I don’t go to a place where I can bag my own groceries and I have no confidence that I could get the baggers to place certain types of items in a certain color bag. I have one insulated bag and it shocks me how often they will put the cold stuff in a regular bag and other items in the insulated bag, even if I’ve asked them to put cold stuff in the insulated bag!! I generally shop with a 6 year old and 4 year old in tow so micro-managing the bagging of my groceries is just not going to happen.

    It never ever occurred to me to wash them. I guess I’ll toss them in the machine today.

  32. OMG, ‘liz’, I’m totally grossed out now, first thing in the morning, im washing my bags!!I always throw everything in together unless i get alot of different groups of stuff then ill put similar with similar!

  33. I’ve been washing mine for a long time. 🙂

  34. I still use the plastic store bags for meats, so I can throw them out. Shameful, I know, but meat juice grosses me out, I really don’t even want it in my washing machine if I can help it…

    I do use my reusable bags for produce and just about everything else… some have washed up great, others, not so much.

  35. Danielle says:

    this is one of the reasons i don’t use them that often…and when i do meat goes in throw away bags…i am not messing with that.

    I do like the bags to carry around other things though…and i use the throw away bags for stinky diapers and trash bin liners…so in a way i am still recycling…maybe?

  36. I only have a few reusable bags. I opt for paper when it is available (which is rare). I bag my meat in doubled plastic bags and toss when we get home. I reuse the plastic ones in my waste cans and keep some in the car for cleaning up. I guess I am just not a big environmentalist, so sorry. I shop Aldi where I put my groceries in cardboard boxes and then recycle later. Never really thought about washing the ones I have but will do so!! Thanks for the tip!

  37. I was surprised at this study, as I was one of the minority who did wash bags and always use seperate bags for produce and meat and cold stuff. My reasoning was, if I used the bag with the apple on it for produce I would be able to find the produce when I got home, the insulated bag was used for meat, and another cold bag for the frozen and dairy products.


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