Wait, Should We Still Be Using Reusable Grocery Bags?

Some cities have banned them over concerns about the coronavirus.

Reusable Bags
Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

As the world continues to take steps to stay safe amid the coronavirus, the way we grocery shop has been temporarily changed in several ways.

Beyond the obvious concerns of staying physically distanced from other shoppers and wearing gloves and washing your hands, you might be reconsidering what you use to carry your food home. In light of health concerns due to the pandemic, San Francisco, the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags, has now reversed course and banned reusable bags at grocery stores, and Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire have moved to do the same.

It makes sense why some places are taking precaution against reusable bags and even mugs (Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts have stopped refilling reusable cups out of coronavirus concerns). One recent study suggested the coronavirus could survive on plastic surfaces for up to three days and on cardboard for up to one day, though it's not clear if it can do the same on plastic or reusable bags.

So even if you live in a city that hasn't banned them, should you stop bringing reusable bags to the store?

Philip Tierno, Ph.D., clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University Langone Health, says the safety of reusable bags depends on their material — and on how efficient you are at cleaning them. Dr. Tierno also says reusable bags have the potential to be riskier than plastic bags in terms of virus safety, but cautions that plastic bags aren't without problems either.

"[With] plastic bags, you have a large number at the checkout counter that are taken one at a time and may be handled by someone who has the virus," he says. "They have their problems, but likely much less than a reusable bag. If you use [a plastic bag] and dispose of it, that would be okay."

Still, that doesn't necessarily mean you have to get rid of your reusable bags if you still want to use them (and they haven't been banned in your city). Recommendations on food safety from North Carolina State University say that "at this time, there is no link between reusable bags and COVID-19." The CDC says the virus is spread through respiratory droplets in the air and "transmission of novel coronavirus to persons from surfaces contaminated with the virus has not been documented" — but recommends all surfaces be cleaned thoroughly and regularly.

Dr. Tierno suggests cleaning out your reusable bags by wiping them down with a disinfectant wipe (if they're lined with plastic or vinyl), or dipping them into a solution of soapy water and rinsing them out.

"Dip them in a soapy solution — to give it a boost, add a bit of bleach — run your bathtub and put the bags in there. The virus is made of a layer of lipids and protein spikes, and lipids are killed with soap and water," he says. "[Any bag that] doesn’t hold up [under the solution] should be thrown away."

In other words, there's a lack of hard-and-fast data on whether or not reusable bags can spread the virus. If you want to err on the side of caution and plastic use feels like a small price to pay for your safety, it's a precaution you may want to take. But if you're committed to being as plastic-free as possible, make sure you're washing your bags.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.

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