Problems With Reusable Shopping Bags

article top

BY JACK DINI –  Eco-friendly reusable shopping bags are raising some eco-questions regarding re-using them, washing them and lead content of the bags.

These three issues pose some problems for those wishing to be eco-friendly with reusable bags.


A study from the United Kingdom found that the potential of reusable shopping bags to benefit the environment depends on how many times they are used before being discarded. Real-world data show that bags are currently harming the environment instead of helping it.

“Whatever type of bag is used, the key to reducing the impacts is to reuse it as many times as possible,” the summary states.” Grocery shoppers must us their cotton bags 131 times to see the environmental benefits touted by global warming alarmists. (1)

What About Bacteria?

Researchers from the University of Arizona discovered that reusable bags are seldom, if ever, washed and often used for multiple purposes. Large numbers of bacteria wee found in almost all bags and coliform in half. E. coli were identified in 12% of the bags and a wide range of entire bacteria, including several opportunistic pathogens. When meat juices were added to bags and stored in the trunks of cars for two hours the number of bacteria increased 10-fold indicating the potential for bacterial growth in the bags. Hand or machine washing was found to reduce the bacteria by greater than 99.9%. The results indicated that reusable bags can play a significant role in the cross-contamination of foods if not properly washed on a regular basis. A poll revealed that 97 percent of shoppers who use eco-friendly bags never washed or bleached them. (2)

Worried About Lead?

Many reusable grocery bags contain almost seven times the lead limit set by many states.

The nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF) released lab results showing that a number of major retailers’ reusable shopping bags contained excessive levels of lead. Of the 44 organizations whose bags were tested, 16 are selling or distributing reusable bags containing lead in amounts greater than 100 ppm, which is where many states set the limit for heavy metals in packaging. CVS and Safeway led the pack with 697 and 672 ppm respectively; both were nearly seven times the 100 ppm limit. To date, CVS is the only store that tested above 100 ppm to have recalled their bags. (3)

Ironically, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental research and advocacy group that specializes in sounding the alarm over toxic substances has a two-faced approach when it comes to lead. Here’s one of their statements:

“Laboratory tests commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) have found lead, a potent neurotoxin, in 100 percent of 10 popular childrens’ face paints. The amounts were low—but as CSC points out, there’s no safe level of lead exposure, which is why the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends protecting children from it.” (4)

Yet when it comes to reusable bags, one of their sacred cows, the tune changes: “We don’t see any need to turn away from reusable bags, because contamination can occur in disposable ones as well,” says Leeann Brown, spokeswoman for the EWG. She recommends consumers carefully wash their hands and produce and look for reusable bags that have been independently tested for lead. (4)

Environmental activist are trying to have it both ways. They’ve spent decades campaigning against lead in paint, toys, and even packaging, but when it comes to their special interests, they seem willing to ignore the issue.

Regardless, if you have reusable bags, make sure to use then many times to be effective, make sure to wash them to avoid bacteria, and watch out for bags with excessive lead.




  1. Cheryl K. Chumley, “Reusable Bags an Environmental Loser,” Environment & Climate News, 14, 1, April 2011
  2. Charles P. Gerba et al., “Assessment of the Potential for Cross contamination of Food Products by Reusable Shopping Bags,” University of Arizona, June 9, 2010
  3. Steve Milloy. “Excessive Amounts of Lead found in Reusable Grocery Bags Supplied by Major Retailers,” Canada Free Press, January 25, 2011
  4. “Lead For Me But Not For Thee,” Center for Consumer Freedom, January 26, 2011






  1. Jack,

    Check out my new blog:

    On my blog I have a downloads menu item. If you click on that there are a number of papers that I have written that can be downloaded.

    One paper titled "Negative Health and Environmental Impacts of Reusable Shopping Bags" deals with the health issues more extensively than you did in the article above. For example, in addition to bacteria, viruses and virus transmission with reusable shopping bags could make other sick. Also, people who have AIDS or a suppressed immune system may be more sensitive to bacteria in reusable bags then people who have normal immune systems. About 20% of the population fit in this category.

    Also, when bag bans are implemented people always complain about all those plastic bags that end up in the landfill. But they have never stopped to calculate all the stuff going into a landfill after a plastic carryout bag ban compare to before. It would surprise you to know that 3.5 times the amount of material goes into the landfill post ban than pre ban. Those plastic carryout bags are sure looking good. see my article titled "Fact Sheet – Landfill Impacts" for the details and the calculations.

    There is much more.

Comments are closed.