Reusable Bag E.Coli Scare: Industry Exaggeration?

By David Abraham

This month, researchers at the University of Arizona released a study (PDF) showing that reusable grocery bags might be contaminated with E. Coli and other harmful bacteria.  They conclude that bags must be washed frequently to avoid cross contamination with other items. Sounds like a problem.

However, the source of the $30,000 in funding used to conduct the study came from none other than the American Chemistry Council, a group that represents plastic manufacturers.

I admit that I don’t use reusable bags every time I shop (hey, I’ve got to clean the cat’s litter box somehow). But I try my best and am very skeptical of this study – not to mention its timing – with a plastic bag ban on the verge of being passed in California.

Whether it’s an exaggeration or not, the press is eating it up with a recent google search yielding dozens of articles trumpeting the study. It’s just the sort of thing that could drive people into a gemophobic frenzy. NPR points out that even if e.coli were to be found in reusable bags (after all, 97% of folks never wash them) it is very unlikely to be found in sufficient quantities to make people sick.

Also worth noting, however, is that many reusable bags are also made by the same plastic manufacturers who are represented by the American Chemistry Council.

David Abraham is an MBA candidate at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.  He is a founder of the Emerging Markets Association at Smith which seeks to build a greater understanding of free-market opportunities in frontier markets.

The posts on this page are contributed by students from the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business in conjunction with the newly launched Center for Social Value Creation. The center's mission is to develop leaders with a deep sense of individual responsibility and the knowledge to use business as a vehicle for social change. These posts are a way to continue the dialogue outside of the classroom and share the viewpoints of Smith students on the challenges and opportunities of triple bottom line thinking.

12 responses

  1. Lovely. More paranoia. Are people dumping raw meat into their bags? Most things people put into bags are packaged anyway so I'm pretty stumped at how this could really be a problem.

    I wonder whether the plastic industry would indeed sell more or less plastic if people switched to more sturdy reusables? Granted, I use canvas bags.

  2. Great on one hand you have Environmental Groups exagerating their scare tactics the end of the world from plastic…
    about as much exageration as the study you highlight
    On the other hand you have this study hgihlighting you can get sick from bags.

    Maybe they should both leave us be…

    I can responsibly use plastic and I do.

    I think I have been given 5 reusable bags as handout this year so I laugh at their now commoditized and marketed lack of sustainability inherant with mature products–I am sure as an MBA student you can understand that.

    Lets all just get along and promote good citizenship where we recycle and don't litter or use excess products.

    1. Except that I'm not so sure the environmental side is an exaggeration. Plastic is absolutely everywhere now and it's a huge problem, not to mention a waste of petroleum. Recycling is only a band-aid. It makes perfect sense to charge people for bags – if they want to use them, they can pay! That alone will massively cut their use. Some will kick and scream, but most will gracefully evolve.

  3. The only time I think I was ever concerned about contaminating a re-usable bag of mine was when I purchased chicken that had a bit too much 'chicken jus' collecting in the bottom of the packaging. Unfortunately, it wasn't packaged too well either…

    Some of the jus did get in my bag, but I simply washed out the bag with a little soap and water… not a problem.

    I'm sorry, but this is definitely just a 'timely' study designed to throw off the legislation.

  4. Pingback: Reusable Bag E.Coli Scare: Industry Exaggeration? – Triple Pundit | Find ReUsable Bags
  5. I agree this sounds suspicious, and so is the timing….. but I guess it is a good thing for people to know. It would be a travesty if this somehow derails California legislation which WILL have a very positive influence on the environment

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