Good Question: Are plastic bags cleaner than reusable bags?

Brennan Somers
Updated: March 16, 2020 11:25 PM
Created: March 16, 2020 11:08 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — We know you have many questions about the coronavirus and we're going to keep getting you answers.

One question that keeps popping up has to do with the new plastic bag ban.


You've sent a lot of different versions of the same question: Why can't New York bring back plastic bags? That has to be safer than people bringing reusable bags to the store and those will help spread the disease, right?

Well, News10NBC tested a reusable bag with the help of a local expert for a previous GQ report. A cashier at a local grocery store asked us to hide her identity for our original story in 2018.

"I am just like, 'ugh,'" she said. "We tend to see a lot of animal hair, spilled food in it. I have even opened bags to find dead bugs in it."

She believes the bags are not always good to handle.

"I am guessing if you were to test some of those bags you would find more germs than a bathroom," she said.

So we took a well-used reusable bag to Rochester Regional Health and asked Peg Pettis, the manager of the Infections Prevention Department, to test it. Pettis swabbed the bag and used a germ detecting machine to get the result. The magic number? 300.

"Anything under a reading of 300 is considered safe," Pettis said.

The first swab wasn't bad: Just under 300.

Then we swabbed longer, including the bag's handles and the result was 515! Not horrible, but well above the threshold of what's considered safe. Pettis wasn't surprised, after all, these bags carry all sorts of food.

"Raw beef, raw pork, raw chicken," Pettis said. "If you bring home eggs and some of the eggs break, they could have salmonella."

Her recommendation for all shoppers?

"Probably a good idea to periodically wipe out your reusable grocery bags," Pettis said.

She wiped down ours and we re-tested it seconds later. That cleansing brought the number down to 67, which is very acceptable.

"A simple wipe, which took a few seconds, really decreased the amount of organisms in the bag," Pettis said.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health researchers shows the coronavirus could live up to two to three days on plastic or steel.

The New York Post editorial board and State Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Republican, are among the critics calling for the new plastic bag ban to be put on hold. They want to keep people from bringing in reusable bags while possibly spreading germs.

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