Sani Marc Group’s virtual magazine

When Two Worlds Collide

Germaphobe or Environmentalist – Do I need to choose which one?

I have two passions in life – findings ways to live life in a more sustainable fashion and promoting good environmental and hand hygiene practices. Most of the time, these two passions work in harmony and one passion supports the other. Being good for the planet is good for your health and vice versa. However, sometimes these two passions come into conflict. Case in point is the recent ban on plastic shopping bags in certain municipalities. The ban on plastic shopping bags has pitted germaphobes against environmentalists (I am both and I don’t mind being called either one!). There have been many articles lately that have linked the use of reusable plastic bags with the potential for being exposed to germs that can make you sick. On the hand, many pounds of plastic from the shopping bags end up in landfill, seriously impacting our planet . Which side should I choose?

The answer is both. What most of the media has failed to mention is that this is not a choice of between staying healthy or reducing our impact on the planet. The issue is one of education. Like Jason Tetro, microbiologist at the University of Ottawa mentioned in his Huffington Post article the focus should not be the potential dangers of using reusable shopping bags but on how to use the bags safely.

Here are some random thoughts and tips on how we can be better educate the population on the safe use of reusable shopping bags:

  • Grocery stores, in their weekly flyer, should include a how to stay healthy and safe when using reusable grocery bags. A simple note such as – remember to wash your reusable shopping bags with hot water and soap on a frequent basis. Mark your calendar so you don’t forget!
  • In-store signage placed near the check-out counters should be used to educate on the need to wash bags on a frequent basis to prevent cross contamination.
  • Stores promoting the use of reusable bags need to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to educate the population that reusable plastic shopping bags need to be wash on a regular basis.
  • Washing instructions should be printed somewhere on the bags. The bottom of the bag could be printed with “Wash me often with hot water and soap” or “Wash me using the gentle cycle of the washing machine! Allow to air dry before reusing!
  • Have reusable grocery bags with the words “Meat Only” printed on them. Bags for meat should also be a different colour or pattern than the rest of the bags. Colour coding is great way to prevent the potential for cross contamination. Raw meat should always be kept separate from the rest of your grocery items.
  • Promote using separate reusable bags for non-grocery items. Again, promote the use of colour coding to distinguish reusable bags that will be used to carry purchases of clothing, electronics and non-food items. If you don’t want to invest in new bags, simply use duct tape or any other means to distinguish these bags from your perishable food bags. Here’s a chance to be creative! (You could make Red Green proud!)
  • Remind shoppers that if they place their reusable bags on the kitchen counter, they need to remember to clean and disinfect the counter once they have put the groceries away and removed the bags.
  • Remind shoppers to wash their hands or use hand sanitizer before and after they unpack their groceries from the reusable bags.

If we want to increase the use of reusable shopping bags, we need to educate the population on how to keep their bags safe and prevent the potential for germ cross contamination. We can reduce our impact on the planet and reduce our potential for being exposed to germs that can make us sick. The key is education.

As Dr. Charles Gerba, an internationally recognized environmental microbiologist and germ expert stated:

"Thus, a sudden or significant increase in use of reusable bags without a major public education campaign on how to reduce cross-contamination would create the risk of significant adverse public health impact."