On Saturday, March 21, 2020, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu issued an order prohibiting reusable shopping bags at stores in the state, stating that they can pose a risk of spreading novel coronavirus, COVID 19. Now is the time to wash your bags so they are ready to use once the ban is lifted.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not the main way the virus spreads.
While reusable bags are an eco-friendly way to pack groceries, household items and clothing from your favorite stores or farmers markets, the reality is, reusable bags are often not cleaned on a regular basis, particularly the ones used to carry groceries.
Research from the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University have shown that almost all bags they tested contained large numbers of bacteria. Coliform bacteria were found in half of the bags. Major coliform bacteria include Shigella, Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Salmonella. This can lead to unwanted cross-contamination, for example, Salmonella in the liquid from a leaky package of chicken could contaminate fresh fruit and vegetables when care is not taken to pack the items separately or wash the bags on a regular basis.
One way to reduce the risk of bacterial, yeast or mold growth is to designate separate bags for meats, poultry, fresh produce, and household cleaners. Labelling your bags with permanent marker for each use is a great way to keep you organized.
Don’t carry dirty items in a reusable bag that you plan to use for fresh produce at the farmers market. Always wash bags if you plan to change their use or as mentioned above, designate bags for certain activities and keep them that way.
All reusable grocery bags can be washed; some just need a little gentler care than others. Check the care labels on the bags and follow the directions. If the bag doesn’t have a care label, follow these instructions from the University of Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service:
Woven or Nonwoven Polypropylene: Machine wash on a gentle cycle with soap and cold water or hand wash in cold water. Line dry.
Nylon or Polyester: Hand wash in warm water and soap. Turn inside out and line dry.
Bamboo or Hemp: Hand or machine wash on a gentle cycle with mild laundry detergent. Machine dry on low or line dry.
Cotton: Machine wash with hot water and laundry detergent. Machine or line dry.
Insulated Bags: Hand wash in warm water and soap or wipe with disinfecting or anti-bacterial wipes, especially along the seams. Line dry.
Make certain the bags are completely dry after washing and before storing and avoid storing your bags in your car trunk. This dark, warm and often humid environment can promote bacterial and mold growth, particularly in the summer.
Reusable bags can last a long time with care, but they don’t last forever with repeated use and washing. Bags that are dirty, torn and beyond repair are worth replacing. Remember the tried and true food safety motto – “When in doubt, throw it out.”