Whole Story

The Official Whole Foods Market® Blog

Wash Those Bags!

After a summer full of travel, I know I'm home in San Francisco when I see all the reusable bags at the checkout line at my Whole Foods Market. To a San Franciscan, forgetting your reusable bag when shopping for groceries is almost as irresponsible as forgetting your wallet. What will you carry your food in, if not a green bag? San Francisco banned hard-to-recycle plastic bags in grocery stores more than three years ago. Whole Foods Market was on the forefront of this initiative; we discontinued the use of plastic bags at checkout in stores across the country. While paper bags are still an option for customers, it's now commonplace for customers to BYOB (bring your own bag). Using a re-usable bag translates into less energy used, less solid waste produced and fewer waterborne wastes. While these environmental benefits clearly support the use of re-usable bags, nothing is ever foolproof. I recently heard a report about bacteria growing in these beloved reusable bags. The report, I discovered, was published by the Environment and Plastics Industry Council. While there is some inherent bias there, the report did have some good suggestions. The study took a sampling of the bacteria content in bags used more than once and concluded that "the bag surface can harbor or breed substantial bacterial populations. Bacteria may be growing in your re-usable bag if it isn't washed properly. The moist, dark, warm interior of a folded reusable bag that has acquired a small amount of water and a trace of food contamination is an ideal incubator for bacteria. Close to 30 percent of bags tested had elevated levels of bacteria, and several tested positive for mold or yeast." Wait! Don't go back to plastic quite yet. It's important to remember that bacteria is everywhere in our environment, but it's not the end of the world. No harmful strains of E. coli or Salmonella were detected in any of the bags tested in this study and in fact, no outbreaks of disease have been linked to reusable bags. However, this study is a reminder that as a precaution, you should wash your bags to prevent bacteria overgrowth and subsequent food contamination. After learning that my bags might be an "incubator for bacteria," I threw them in the wash and hung them to dry in the sun. While I was at it, I went through my collection of reusable bags and tossed a few into the recycling bin that were looking a little old and grungy. Like most San Franciscans, I have bags in my car, in my closet, in my storage unit…it's a little out of control. When you think about the potential to pick up some unwanted bacteria during a shopping excursion based on all the things you touch (the bus on the way to the store, the bathroom door, the checkout counter), the probability that your bags are carrying around some bacteria as well makes sense. The nagging from our mothers to "wash your hands!" needs to be reinforced from time to time and should be extended to our bags as well. So, like mom said, Wash your hands! And while you're at it, wash your bag with equal care to eliminate the potential for cross-contamination. The possibility of transmitting germs by using a reusable bag can be eliminated with a little good housekeeping. Here in San Francisco, we have a reputation to uphold as green mission trendsetters! We can't let a fear of germs slow down our momentum to save the planet, one reusable bag at a time.

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46 comments

Comments

Liz says …

Thank you for the great tip! I never think to wash my bags but it's so common sense. You're right that bacteria is everywhere and we just have to create the right habits - I will not be deterred from my reusable bags!

Karen Maskall says …

You could try making a 5% solution of white vinegar as a disinfectant spray for the inside of the bag. Apple cider vinegar is great for removing any mould or mildew.

paig292 says …

You know, I had the same question! I decided to risk it and threw my bags into my front loading machine along with some towels and they did fine. then I hung them to dry in the sun. While the washing may weaken them over time, I decided it was worth it to have clean bags! Thanks.

Lindsay Jara says …

Good article and a good reminder. I do wash my bags on occasion but I have a hard time letting go of the grungy ones. My collection of bags is so large now that they don't all get used, even on a major grocery trip! Time to wash them or toss them!

Kathy Watson says …

I wasn't sure that these Whole Foods reusable bags pictured, could be thrown in the washing machine without falling apart. I admit that I haven't tried it.

Holly says …

Good article - this never occurred to me. How do you recommend washing these bags? By hand or can you throw the plastic-based ones in the washing machine?

Teri says …

Good point!

Dr. Josh Axe says …

Thanks for sharing

AL says …

Can you throw those bags in the washing machine? Like Kathy, I'm afraid they'll fall apart. But I'll do it tonight, as mine do need a good soak.

screwdestiny says …

That's so awesome that in San Fransisco almost everybody uses reusable bags. Where I live (in freaking Podunk, Wyoming), reusable bags are certainly available in the stores, but hardly anybody uses them. I can even sense the cashiers' annoyance half the time when I break mine out. Oh, and I've washed my bags several times before. If you use them a lot they just get a little dingy, and it's super easy to throw them in the washing machine and dryer.

adikos says …

i feel your pain about having so many bags. the sheer amount of re-usable bags my wife and i have acquired over the past 2 years has indeed gotten out of hand. we both keep 2 in the car, we have 6 or so in a hall closet as backups. 10 or so waiting for action in a crate. ones randomly around the place with stuff stored in them (ive got a bag of books from my mother sitting next to me). everytime we see a parent we get 1-2 more. we do have some that are getting kinda tattered from their trips to the store, but its fun to have unique ones too. we do wash the ones we have in regular use every month or so and all of them do well. bravo to wfm for being a big push in replacing plastic bags.

chris breedlove says …

I would think it would be sensible to add that before washing bags be turned inside out. Many are waterproof and washing them only on the outside would not accomplish the needed cleaning;

Scargosun says …

I wash my bags, just pop them in the washer and hang dry. No problem.

Roxy says …

Thanks for this! Unfortunately, I hadn't thought of washing mine. I have many cloth ones that probably could use it. Guess what I am doing when I get home tonight? The only ones I am not sure if I can wash are the ones meant to hold cold items and have a special liner. Anyone know as I don't wanna ruin them they cost more. The plastic type ones I will wash on delicate.

dori says …

i washed a bag once after a major spill and the seams started to unravel (actually, the sheryl crow lunch size bag shown above). maybe i got a defective one?

Just Curious says …

How far does utilizing reusable bags go towards offsetting your carbon footprint from "a summer full of travel", particularly if any of that travel was via airplane?

Amy says …

I usually put mine into one recyclable bag and have them stashed by the fridge. This is the place (on top of the WF sack particularly) that my cats like to sleep. I thought nothing of it, until I went to Target, made sure to grab the Target sack and when I put it into the car full, I realized that there was (gag) cat yack on the edge of the sack. Home and into the trash that sack went. I now keep the sacks elsewhere and inspect all my sacks before heading to the store. They do get washed occasionally if they're not too icky. Hubby use particualr ones for bike races to store his food/snacks/water bottles and trash.

Sandy says …

Great article! I don't wash mine too often either, but I do wipe them down. I have bags for non-produce stuff and bags for produce. I'll be washing them more frequent after reading this article. Thanks for sharing!!

Maria says …

Washing the canvas bags are excellent. Not so much with the pretty bags like the one pictured with this article. I did wash it with hot water using the gentle cycle. Luckily I was able to take it back to WF and get another one. Now I use the canvas bags fir food and the recycled plastic for non-food items like soap, lotions, etc.

lisa says …

have a lot of re-usable bags that you aren't using? list them on freecycle. i've listed "re-usable cloth bags - quantity 6" several times and always receive a lot of inquiries from folks looking to take my extra bags off my hands...

renay says …

this is so important and I needed the reminder, thank you.

Linda says …

Funny i was thinking about this same thing just yesterday..i have the small bag in the picture above, and there is plastic outside but cloth inside, i was hesitant to wash it too...but i will try washing it in reverse...or i can just use soapy warm water and wash it by hand by reversing it. good idea!

Robin G. says …

Thank you so much for this article! As a cashier, I deal with many kinds of reuseable bags every day. While the majority of them are decent, I have, on occasion, had to handle bags covered with cat fur (I'm allergic), sticky/stained-with-who-knows-what bags, bags with actual dirt in them, bags that smell like dead fish, that smell like gasoline, that reek of smoke, bags that are so limp that they are nearly impossible to load, bags with ripped/missing handles. I cannot believe people actually put food for their families into bags like these, yet in my position I can't even helpfully suggest they wash them once in awhile.

Lanae says …

I would think that the gentle cycle in the washing machine would be ok.

Sunflower says …

I don't think the San Francisco lifestyle is as unique as this writer assumes it to be. Good grief!

Heidi says …

Oh my...I haven't washed my bags, but they are so new, they haven't all been used. But, I think washing them will be better than not doing anything at all. Some might not be overused, but they definately would be more safe if decontaminated at least.

Joachim says …

Well done on using that report with a positive spin and a useful takeaway rather than just slamming the report! That said, we should keep things in perspective. The amount of crap on our everyday devices, ESPECIALLY cell-phones (that we happily stick to our faces) is far more worrying than what you can find in those bags. And as you rightly point out - this is nature. We should get over this whole kill all germs thing. It's pointless. It won't happen. No matter what you spray or try (and the more you spray and disinfect, the less resistant your body becomes and the more likely your body is to react negatively to those chemicals you've used). So kudos to pointing out the obvious (keep repeatedly used items reasonably clean) and don't get too crazy about germs...

Liz says …

We wash our bags regularly. All of my bags are carefully chosen in the nylon or cloth style. That makes them really easy to wash, with no sign of wear or tear. We use the bags for everything (dirty clothes when traveling, my husband's bike gear, my dogs toys, leashes, etc) so it is really important that they are washable in our family. I also have the 3B bags for my produce which are machine washable - indispensable addition to my collection.

Elena says …

Whole Foods: Please bring back more of the "older" style of reusable bags (the Bananas/Flour/Grapes/Apples/Coffee/Oysters series) because that material washes better.

Anna says …

Great tip! I will probably toss mine in the wash this evening. My collection is pretty crazy too. It seems like every time I go to a convention, I'll pick up a handful of bags because most of the vendors have them now with logos for their business.

Chrs says …

Washable bags are the best - we like machine washable produce bags from Bite (www.sustainablebite.com) and grocery bags like Envirosax.

Jennifer says …

Surrounding all of the buzz on this topic, we wrote an FAQ on how to clean reusable bags. The best methods vary depending on the material the bag is made out of. We’d also love to hear any ideas that we may have missed. You can see the FAQ at: http://www.bulletinbag.com/faqs/washing-reusable-bags.html There’s not much information out there on how to keep bags clean–just that you SHOULD keep them clean, so hopefully our FAQ can help some of you out there :)

Ebba says …

Thank you. I recently washed my bags in the washer on very gentle light and they came out a little wrinkled and lost their stiffness which helps keep them upright when full. Do you have any suggestions on how to keep them clean without losing this?

Rebecca says …

PLEASE BRING BACK THE LARGE SHERYL CROW BETTER BAG. There are only small ones at the store. I felt they were better quality. the new bags are not as good quality as the new ones you have out with the basket design.

Isabelle says …

Yes, it only makes sense, doesn't it? Gotta wash out the grime.:)

Debi Maes says …

Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam comments? If so how do you reduce it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it's driving me crazy so any help is very much appreciated.

Bepkom says …

@Debi: We actually don't use anything special.....we simply manually read through all the comments.

Louisa says …

Is Paige a staffer? I was searching ways to wash the bags, and she wrote a post and does not know the procedure? Is it posted anywhere?

Bepkom says …

@Louisa: Thank you for your question. I recommend simply using an eco-friendly cleaning spray and a cloth......nothing too difficult or complicated.

name-brand says …

Relatively exciting. Nonetheless I do not subscribe to your whole idea, all be it exhilarating none the less. In any case I did enjoy looking at it. so thank you for this post, and look forward to better ones

mara says …

I love whole foods. the brand new store in del Mar is an absolute beautiful, positive, wonderful experience to shop at. Not only is the energy phenomenal, the staff is incredible knowledgeble and very helpful. I am so impressed ! I don't need valet parking, but it's available for those who need it ! Awesome ! I am looking for the 2012 spring reusable bag. It's the one with the pink rooster. very colorful. "support local farmers" written on it. Are they anywhere still available? like to buy 6. thanks you

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@MARA - Thanks for your great feedback about the new location in Del Mar...glad you are enjoying it! Unfortunately, since you are looking for an older edition of our Better Bag, this has probably sold out at most of our locations. We can sometimes hunt down the bags if it is last seasons bag but I have not seen any of these in our office.

Evi Blueth says …

I would like to get some of the thin bags you sell with recycled fibers made from plastic bottles. They just slip over the arm and are terrific. I don't live in a city so want to order the pretty ones online as gfits etc.

Tammy Donohue says …

I live in Olympia WA and we don't have Whole Market Foods here and I want to get some of these bags. Is there a way to order them online anywhere?

Nikki - Community Moderator says …

@TAMMY - We do not currently offer online ordering for our Better Bags, but we do have a store in Austin that can ship these for you. You can call them directly at 512-542-2243 for info and they can possibly send you photos of what styles they have in stock.

LLG says …

I wish I had read this before I threw out my bags. I didn't even think to wash them as I didn't think they would hold up. I've rinsed them out before and it just seemed like they weren't the same. Guess I'll go buy more and try washing them and hanging them out to dry when it's time. Thanks for this article. Great reminders!