The perils of banning plastic grocery bags

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

I’m one of us who tries to remember to use those cloth, reusable bags at the grocery. Really. There’s a bunch of them, sitting in the trunk of my car, just ready to be filled and re-filled with groceries. They usually just sit there, forgotten.

Apparently, they’re more active than I realized. They’re busy growing a whole host of nasty germs.

As reported in detail by Ramesh Ponnuru at, there may be an unexpected downside to using those cloth bags. Researchers have found that they’re often filled with bacteria from human and animal stool that can make you sick. Apparently, these sorts of bacteria can be transferred from fresh veggies and other food onto the bags, and they multiply like crazy in your warm trunk.

Mmmm. Colon bacteria.

It’s not just theoretical, either—some evidence has shown that those bags really could make you sick. Local ER visits for E coli infections, caused by one of those tasty stool bacteria, increased immediately after San Francisco’s plastic bag ban, as did salmonella-related illnesses.

There is some good news: the same researchers who documented that these bacteria were  common also found that ordinary washing could dramatically decrease bacterial colonization. Too bad only 3% of the families surveyed bothered to ever wash their bags. I know I don’t.

So: could the net effect of the discouragement or banning of plastic grocery bags be detrimental to our health? I would say the jury’s out. Too many variables to be sure. But clearly, as usual, there may be unintended consequences of legislation to ban these bags. We may end up sicker. Or, we might have to wash our cloth bags—which uses more water and electricity, offsetting the environmental advantage of reusable bags. This whole situation might encourage the use of more paper, recyclable bags, but they have their own, different environmental impact on trees and water and energy use.

I don’t think there’s a simple, best answer here. It makes sense to reduce the use of resources, to re-use plastic or paper or cloth bags when practical, and to recycle things that can be recycled. Beyond that, are cloth bags definitely, always better than plastic? Maybe not.

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3 Comments on “The perils of banning plastic grocery bags”

  1. Amy (T) Says:

    I don’t know why people haven’t figured out the washing thing. A couple years ago my dad pointed to my reusable bags and said “those are full of bacteria” (citing some show or recent repot). And I easily replied, “no, I wash them.” You don’t have to wash them all too often, I group my stuff so the things in cardboard/paperboard go in one bag, veggies/fruit in another, and meat in the one easiest to wash. I also use those little plastic bags for meat and veggies (that you get in the section) so I don’t wash the bags after each use. I have wondered though, with regular use and washing, if the bags will fall apart before they’ve really saved energy from using plastic? I’ve had mine for years, and do use then regularly, but do forget them in the car or home occasionally.


  2. Jess Says:

    Ewwww. I guess I’d never thought of this. Bags are in the washing machine now.


  3. Durango Says:

    Oh dear. How gross. I do, in fact, regularly wash my bags, but still. Ew.


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