Reuseable grocery bags are proving popular with shoppers -- but they can carry health hazards along with your groceries.

More Americans seem to be using the eco-friendly bags -- but they aren’t washing them after each use. This can lead to a buildup of bacteria, some of which can cause serious illnesses.

According to a joint food-safety research report issued by researchers at the University of Arizona and Loma Linda University, reusable grocery bags can serve as a breeding ground for dangerous foodborne bacteria, such as E. coli, and pose a serious risk to public health.

“As a cashier I’ve seen some pretty nasty reusable bags,” said Darlene Firethunder, a Rapid City resident who works as a cashier at Wal-Mart. “I use the reusable bags and always make sure to wash them after I use them.”

Firethunder said she also makes her own reusable bags out of denim and canvas.

“I always put meats in a plastic bag before I put them in the canvas bag to make sure they don’t leak,” Firethunder said.

Andrew Valasek, who works at Breadroot Natural Foods Co-Op, said he usually washes his reusable grocery bags using eco-friendly soaps.

“I just tie them in a knot tightly so they don’t get caught in the machine,” Valasek said. “I like using them; it’s better for the environment.”

Many local grocery stores are making an effort to offer eco-friendly bags to their shoppers. Family Thrift Center uses green Eco-Hippie bags that have a minimum of 30 percent recycled material in them. Breadroot Natural Foods Co-op sells reusable hand-made produce bags and Chico Compact Reusable Shopping Bags. Breadroot does not buy any new plastic bags to give to customers; all of its bags are donated to the store.

Regardless of whether the bags are washed regularly, eco-friendly bags have definitely become common sight in local stores.

“I like to use them, and I make them out of old T-shirts I have,” said Lesley Poper of Rapid City. “I usually wash the ones I make, but not the commercial ones. It’s nice to not have the plastic ones that build up.”

But according to the Loma Linda study, conducted in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Tucson on random shoppers, large numbers of bacteria were found in almost all bags, and coliform bacteria in half. Escherichia coli were identified in 12 percent of the bags, along with a wide range of enteric bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens.

“I use them, but just never thought to wash them,” Lori Severson, a Rapid City Family Thrift Center shopper, said Saturday. “Now, I will start.”

“A lot of our customers use the reusable bags, and I use them,” said Jessica Kerlin, manager at Breadroot Natural Foods Co-Op. “I don’t usually wash the reusable bags, but if I use the plastic bags, then I usually wash them with my dishes.”

Other shoppers said they only wash their reusable bags when they are visibly dirty.

“I use the reusable bags from time to time and wash them when they look dirty,” said Susie Hadrick as she shopped Saturday at Family Thrift Center. “If they get something on them, then I wash them -- but otherwise, no.”

Some Family Thrift Center shoppers said they were concerned about washing reusable bags with their regular laundry, saying it was like a Catch-22.

“I don’t wash my bags every time, and it’s almost like the regular home washers don’t have hot enough water to kill the bacteria and do it justice,” said Robyn Thompson of Rapid City. “If you have something like that on your bag, do you really want to put it in with your clothes and get it all over your washer?”

Contact Ruth Brown at 394-8329 or


(2) comments


great article! I never thought about bacteria and reusing the bags.

Rush Mountmore
Rush Mountmore

Coming soon to your store. Garbage dripping grocery bags to help with the Green Revolution.

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