Cartier: Reusable bags are good, but you should wash them sometimes (column) |

Cartier: Reusable bags are good, but you should wash them sometimes (column)

In our valley, we pride ourselves on living an adventurous life. We love getting into the dirt and working up a sweat, pushing our limits as we tackle our mountains with a robust zest. Our bikes, ski equipment, rafts, running shoes, camp gear, boots and assorted other outdoor goodies, travel with us everywhere. So, while we wash our clothing, clean our shoes and sports gear, what happens with our recycled or reusable bags? You know the ones — where our cat likes to cuddle, or the dog uses as a pillow in the back seat, or the one that we throw in the car trunk, between our adventure gear and the spare tire.

Recycling is good. Living in a disposable world is convenient but creates unbelievable amounts of waste. Plastic cups are rarely reused. Drying clean hands with a paper towel at home, instead of cloth, creates needless waste. Food containers are rarely washed and reused. Clothing can be consigned or donated, not simply thrown away. What about when appliances break down, needing only a simple part, but the cost of repair exceeds the price of a new one, so it’s tossed? The excessiveness has become absurd, so it’s time that we curtail wherever possible to create a sustainable future, yet I think we should give some consideration to how we handle reusable and recycled bags.

It’s 9 p.m., do you know where your bag is? I became curious about how we use our recycled bags. Most only have a few and they are used for virtually everything. They haul wet swimsuits, books, donations to the thrift store, tools, dirty hiking boots, pet food, toys, outdoor gear, to carrying around that new little puppy — virtually anything that will fit, gets its turn. Do I really want my fresh vegetables on the same counter as that bag from the previous customer, which was pulled out from the trunk with pet hair on it? What happens to people with extreme sensitivities? Can that farmers market bunch of fresh peanuts cross-contaminate and trigger a severe allergic reaction to the next person in line?

How often are these bags washed? Most are not designed to go into the washer, but a light sponge would help, yet few people recall when they last cleaned theirs. For many of us, mud and dirt are daily experiences as our lifestyle engages us in a variety of pursuits, so it may seem like an over exaggeration to even think about a little dirt in or on our grocery bags, yet a little dust can quickly turn into a bacterial petri dish, with its related consequences.

What about the possibility of creepier contaminants like fleas, mites or other tiny, crawly things, which might be hard to spot along the folded seams of a bag? Clothing stores must also adhere to this no plastic bag policy, and some have expressed concerned over dirty bags brought into the store and set down, next to new clothing, where there could easily be insect contamination. One even expressed a fear of bedbugs being brought in and an entire inventory needing to be tossed.

The Chicago Tribune reminds us that “reusable” doesn’t mean “self-cleaning.” Researchers from Loma Linda University surveyed recycled bag users and reported that 97 percent do not regularly, if ever, clean their bags.

“The researchers tested 84 of the bags for bacteria. They found huge amounts (of bacteria) in all but one bag, and coliform bacteria in half. And, the much-feared E.coli was among them, in 12 percent of the bags.”

According to an NBC News article, Oregon public health officials traced an outbreak of norovirus infections in a group of soccer players to an unlikely source: a reusable grocery bag contaminated with what some experts are calling “the perfect pathogens.” According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, noroviruses are a group of viruses responsible for 21 million cases of gastrointestinal illness a year, including 70,000 hospitalizations, and 800 deaths. Things got worse: “When scientists stored the bags in the trunks of cars for two hours, the number of bacteria jumped 10-fold.”

The Denver Channel conducted its own unofficial test with the University of Colorado Hospital and found similar results.

Now that you are sufficiently grossed out, please invest in some bleach or Lysol and give your bags a bath. The rest of the community will be grateful.

Jacqueline Cartier is a political and corporate consultant in Colorado and Washington, D.C. For further information, visit She may be contacted at

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