How to Wash Reusable Bags
Yes, those reusable shopping bags get filthy, and yes, people in the grocery store checkout line are judging you. Turns out, some are also studying you, or at least people like you.
In a 2013 study, for example, researchers at Loma Linda University and the University of Arizona looked at the potential for cross contamination of food products in reusable grocery bags and found, well, lots of potential.
After randomly collecting shopping bags as consumers entered grocery stores in California and Arizona, researchers interviewed bag owners about their washing habits. Consumers reported rarely, if ever, washing their bags. (Cannot even fathom how researchers managed to wrest grocery bags from their owners, let alone extract a damning confession.)
Unsurprisingly, lots of bacteria were found in nearly all bags and about 50 percent contained coliform bacteria. One of the scariest coliforms, E. Coli, popped up in a whopping 12 percent of bags.
Lest you rest easy thinking this doesn’t apply to you, bear in mind that reusable shopping bags aren’t the only ones that could do with a good wash. Harmful pathogens have been found in bags of every description, including handbags, gym bags, overnight bags, and diaper bags. Handbags, which might seem the least likely to offend, were judged to be dirtier than toilets by the UK’s Good Housekeeping Institute.
And if health concerns aren’t reason enough to fire up the washing machine and agitate some suds, there’s also a strategically political one. The movement to abolish plastic is steamrolling along, making inroads around the world. It would be massively unfortunate if grungy reusable bags, and related health concerns, provided an excuse to reintroduce plastic.
Time for some good news: washing, either by hand or machine, reduces bacteria by 99.9 percent. With that cheery statistic in mind, here’s a comprehensive guide to freshly laundered bags that will impress that critical grocery store customer in line behind you, starting with general tips before going granular.
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General Washing Tips For Reusable Bags
- Before laundering any bag, close zippers, and remove or tuck away straps and dangly bits.
- Bags made from synthetic fibers require special attention to keep microplastics from getting into waterways via the washing machine. Use a fiber-collecting device (such as the Guppyfriend or the Cora Ball), and throw the collected fibers in the garbage after each wash cycle.
- Other measures to cut down on microfiber loss include laundering less frequently, using a gentle cycle, and washing a full load to avoid fiber loss due to friction.
- Yup, that’s a lot of work. Better to buy natural-fiber bags to begin with. Fiber loss from bags made of fabrics like cotton, jute, linen, and hemp are biodegradable and pose no danger to waterways.
- For natural-fiber bags, prevent wear-and-tear damage from general friction by using pillowcases or specially made washbags. Save on water by accumulating a few bags and chucking them in together.
- Avoid buying bags with cardboard or other types of stiffeners. The cardboard turns to mush that forms unsightly lumps, and washing bags with plastic canvas or PU foam inserts—often found in padded laptop bags—yields varied results. Wash carefully, by hand if possible, and avoid machine drying.
- Don’t assume bags are colorfast. Life can be disappointing enough without ruining clothes or bedding—or the bag itself. Wash with like colors or alone.
- Washing instruction labels—the ones sewn into bags—may recommend spot cleaning. I have never followed this recommendation and have never ruined a bag, with the exception of those with the aforementioned cardboard stiffeners or foam inserts.
- Bags with decorative embellishments need extra care. Embellishments include colored prints, graphic designs, pompoms, and embroidery, among others. Use cool water and insert into pillowcases or washbags. Consider handwashing to avoid transferring dyes to other fabrics.
- For bags that may harbor dangerous bacteria, wash with vinegar instead of soap. If weather permits, dry in full sunlight for an extra bacteria-busting wallop. Don’t use vinegar with bleach, though, even if the bag is bleach-able. Mixing vinegar and bleach creates toxic chlorine gas.
- When spot cleaning is enough, an informal forensic investigation into the type of stain will make removal easier. Dirt and other dry stains can usually be removed with a soft brush. Wet stains take more work, and cleaning will leave a watermark unless the fabric is dried immediately. Clean with mild soap, water, and a soft brush. Dry with a hair dryer set to low.
- Vinegar is ineffective on greasy stains because it’s an acid. Alkaline soap works best on grease. Unscented liquid Castile is gentle on the environment and widely available.
- Before using any cleaning products, test first on a small area on the inside of the bag.
How to Wash Every Type of BagHeavy Cotton Canvas Bags and Backpacks
Bags that weigh enough to topple a chair are headed straight for the floor when not slung over your shoulder. And, to no one’s surprise, floors are some of the dirtiest places you’ll encounter, particularly bus and washroom floors. Depending on use, heavy canvas bags will need frequent washings.
Bags in this category include boat totes, diaper bags, overnight bags, and most gym bags. Despite their weight, they’re not especially difficult to launder. Most can go right into the washing machine, even when the instructions indicate spot or dry cleaning. Just follow these steps.
- Pre-treat stubborn stains with mild soap or vinegar, depending on the stain
- Remove any straps, and wash them separately in a bag
- Place the bag in a washbag or pillowcase
- Use a front-loading washing machine, if possible (it cuts down on agitation)
- Use a small amount of mild soap or vinegar as a disinfectant
- Wash on a gentle cycle in warm water
- Reshape and allow to air dry standing up, or tumble dry until damp and then reshape and allow to dry standing up
- Sunlight kills bacteria and removes some stains. Place the washed bag on a clean towel in sunlight, if weather permits
- The bag will soften and lose some of the wrinkles while drying. Steam out any remaining wrinkles
- Between washings, spot clean using mild soapy water and a damp cloth or soft bristled brush. Rinse well
- If the bag comes into contact with anything likely to contain bacteria, don’t rely on the usual methods. Most residential washing machines don’t produce water hot enough to kill bacteria and bleach will ruin most bags. Vinegar added to a wash will kill most pathogens
Light-Weight Cotton Bags (includes linen, hemp, and other natural fibers)
These include purchased shopping bags and promotional bags, handed out free at bookstores, restaurant takeout counters, and events. They’re ubiquitous in most households (I have at least a dozen) and easy to wash.
- Throw them directly into the washing machine after several uses or when you know something dubious is lurking in the fabric.
- Use a warm water wash on a gentle or cotton cycle
- Unless you opt for natural, undyed cotton, most bags are not colorfast so wash with like colors or alone.
- All cotton shrinks, even pre-washed, pre-shrunk cotton. If size matters, hang the bag to dry or run it through the dryer on low.
Medium-Weight Cotton Tote Bags (includes linen, hemp, and other natural fibers)
Tote bags, by definition, are meant for toting stuff around. In the process, they get dragged through the muck of everyday life, picking up an interesting collection of stains along the way. Esthetically, they’re usually the grubbiest-looking bags (microscopically, grocery bags are probably grosser, though). They’re nearly always washable, though. The instructions are similar to those for heavy totes, but less fussy:
- Pre-treat stubborn stains with mild soap on a soft cloth
- Use regular laundry detergent or mild plant-based soap or vinegar, depending on the bag and the degree of soiling
- Wash on a gentle cycle in cool to warm water
- Wash alone or with like colors if the bag is heavily dyed
- For embellished bags, use a pillowcase, washbag, or wash by hand
- If shrinkage is an issue, machine wash using cold water and then air dry
- To dry flat, place the bag on a hard surface and smooth out all wrinkles, paying special attention to the straps
- Use a warm iron, if necessary
Quilted Cotton Bags
Quilted bags are usually made of finer cotton and are often brightly colored. These can also go in the washing machine, and sometimes the dryer. Although they’re usually colorfast, it’s better to wash them alone, in a large pillowcase or washbag
Cold-water washing and cool-temperature drying helps prevent shrinkage You can also air dry, and then press with a cool iron to remove any remaining wrinkles.
Safely Washing Synthetic Bags
Washing all types of synthetic bags takes a little know-how and special equipment to keep microfibers out of waterways. Use a filter bag, like Guppyfriend, or a collection ball, like Cora Ball, to collect fibers. After each wash, remove the fibers and place them in the trash.
Nylon totes are probably the easiest to wash since they go straight in the machine, in a fiber filter bag or with a fiber-collecting ball, and come out practically dry.
- Machine wash on warm using regular detergent or mild soap
- Blot excess water
- Hang to thoroughly dry—usually takes less than an hour.
- Keep them out of sunlight for prolonged periods since colors may fade.
Better known as cat and dog hair magnets, microfiber bags are made from a combination of densely packed polyester and nylon fibers. Be sure to check the seams for hidden crud before washing. To machine wash, place the bag in a fiber collection bag or use a collection ball, and then follow these instructions:
- Wash in warm on a gentle cycle with like colors
- Use a mild detergent
- Never use a fabric softener. It will clog the microfiber pores
- Lint from other items in the load will transfer to the microfiber, so avoid washing with cotton and other lint-shedding fabrics
Insulated Lunch & Shopping Bags
These vary greatly in quality and in their ability to withstand washing machine friction, so proceed with caution. For hand washing, wipe them down with a soapy cloth or disinfectant wipe if you’re transporting grocery items like raw meat. For bags that need a little extra attention, you can submerge them in the kitchen sink:
- Fill the sink with warm soapy water or vinegar
- Use a cloth to wipe all surfaces
- Rinse with clean water
Now it’s Your Turn
Armed with a little know-how, it’s time to sidle up to the washing machine and clean that collection of reusable bags. The rewards will be evident. Once they’re freshly laundered, there will be no need to don dark glasses and slink into the grocery store with a cache of shopping bags tucked under your coat. And, more importantly, the movement to end plastic is free to gain momentum, unhindered by your bags.
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