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Posted: 6:26 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013
Keeping bags clean
Are you finally starting to remember to bring your bags? Great, but don’t forget to clean them, too.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University in California tested 84 reusable bags and found that half of them carried some form of coliform bacteria, including E. coli. In that same study, 97 percent of those interviewed said they never wash or bleach their reusable bags.
And just think: If you never wash your bags and you store them in the trunk of your car, especially during the hot summer months, you’re essentially creating an incubator that will encourage bacteria growth.
Some bags are easier to clean than others. Cloth or canvas bags can be thrown in the washing machine, but many of the reusable bags sold today are coated with plastic and are meant to be wiped clean or are made with a fabric or material that is not machine washable. Last summer, after realizing that I’d never cleaned any of the 30 or so reusable bags I had collected over the years, I set out to give them a good cleaning. I pulled out the canvas bags to machine wash, which wasn’t any more difficult than regular laundry, but because I knew that I’d used the other bags to carry everything from whole chickens to clothes I was taking to the thrift store, I wanted to clean them with more than a rag and spray bottle of cleaning liquid.
In an effort to keep the bathroom floor from getting sopping wet, I ended up filling a kiddie pool in the backyard with water and more antibacterial soap that I probably needed. It was a hassle, to say the least, so much so that since, I’ve used only canvas bags to carry groceries. (That is, when I’ve remembered to bring them. I’m as forgetful as anyone, but as the ordinance start date approaches, I’m getting better about grabbing them from the pantry on the way out.)
Some of the shoppers I talked to for this story preferred other kinds of reusable bags because of their square bottoms, which are easier to pack, or for aesthetic reasons, but for my money (and family’s health), if I can’t wash the bag in the washing machine, I probably won’t use it to carry food.
To further avoid accidentally poisoning someone in your family, consider using the same reusable bag for meat and fish on every grocery trip and another specifically for fresh produce. If you clearly label the bags and point them out to the person helping bag your groceries at the store, you can help avoid cross-contamination. Wash the meat and produce bags more frequently than the bags that carry the goods that are already packaged.
Also, take advantage of the so-called product or noncheckout bags — the lightweight bags found in the bakery, bulk, produce and meat sections that add an extra layer of food safety protection. These bags are exempt in Austin’s bag ordinance, and in recent years, many retailers have added a roll of these bags near the poultry, whose packaging is notoriously leaky.
Some bags, including those made with nylon or nonwoven polypropylene, can be washed on cold in the washing machine’s gentle cycle but, depending on the material, can break down quickly if run through the machine. (Don’t put them in the dryer or they’ll really fall apart.) You could spray them with an antibacterial spray, such as Lysol, but I’d rather use sturdier bags that I can actually wash to get clean.
— Addie Broyles
How has the ban worked in Brownsville?
It has been exactly two years since Brownsville banned single-use plastic bags, and Arturo Rodriguez, the city’s director of public health, says you don’t have to look very hard for signs that it’s working.
“From the very beginning, our aim with the ordinance was to clean up the litter being caused by the plastic bags,” he says. “We consistently hear that the city looks much cleaner and there’s a renewed spirit about wanting to maintain the city as it is now.”
Rodriguez knew that as the first city in Texas to enact a single-use bag ban (South Padre and Fort Stockton now have similar ordinances), his city would pave the way, but he says he didn’t realize how quickly he’d see an impact and with very few complaints from retailers or citizens along the way.
Rodriguez says that people have gotten used to having to bring their bags, and if they forget them in the car, sometimes they’ll just wheel the purchases in the cart to the car and then place them into the bags there.
Unlike Austin’s ordinance, Brownsville requires retailers to charge a $1 fee per transaction for customers who would like their purchases in a single-use bag.
The money collected from that fee is earmarked for environmental uses, Rodriguez says, and with it the city has purchased street sweepers and hosted cleanup events to further beautify Brownsville. (Merchants who provide nonreusable bags to customers without assessing the fee can incur a $500 fine for violating the ordinance, but Rodriguez says they haven’t had to issue any citations.)
One of retailers’ biggest fears is that instead of navigating the new rules, customers will just go outside the city to do their grocery shopping. Rodriguez says that according to sales tax numbers, that hasn’t happened in Brownsville. “We’re not getting complaints,” he says, from retailers or shoppers. “If you don’t believe it works, come down to Brownsville and see for yourself.”
— Addie Broyles