BEND, Ore. - The question at the checkout counter used to be "paper or plastic?" But now a growing number of grocery shoppers are just bringing their own grocery bags to the store.
"The amount of bags that are in our environment accumulate really quickly," said Denise Rowcroft, the sustainability educator for The Environmental Center. "So when one person chooses to reuse, even one item like a plastic bag, it really does make a difference, in terms of the amount of waste that is accumulated in our environment."
It is just another way people are trying to decrease the carbon footprint. But if the bags are not cleaned properly, they could be making you sick.
Experts say if you fill your grocery bag with raw meats during a trip to the store, and then come back a week later and fill the same bag with vegetables without washing, it could cause you to cross-contaminate.
"Salmonella, E.Coli, Campylobacter, Listeria these are all different organisms that can be in raw meat," said Eric Mone, environmental health supervisor for Deschutes County Environmental Health. "You want to really try to minimize the amount of bacteria that could potentially have the chance to be in a reusable grocery (bag)."
NewsChannel 21's Brittany Weiner did some investigating of her own, to see how much bacteria could be on the bottom of one reusable bag.
She brought the bag used for everyday food shopping to the UMPAUA Research Company, on Glenwood Drive in Bend. There, they performed two tests to see what, and how much bacteria could build up from everyday use.
What they found was far from appealing.
"As far as total coliform and heterotrophic bacteria, no, (the bag) was not clean," Teresa Mireles, office manager at UMPQUA Research Company, said while explaining the lab results.
Mireles ran the tests on the reusable bag and found an overload of results when testing for heterotrophic bacteria.
"So the first one is my blank, which I have to run to make sure that my sterile water is sterile," said Mireles while describing the plates used for heterotrophic bacteria testing. "The blank was negative. Then I ran a straight one-X dilution, which was a straight sample, and the 84 wells were positive."
Mireles said each testing well had so much bacteria she had to dilute the sample down by 1,000 in order to get an accurate bacteria count.
"There was 12,000 colonies of bacteria per mL (milliliter) of sample," said Mireles.
Although the test proved lots of bacteria could live in your reusable bags, there is a simple solution that can keep your bags clean, and you healthy.
"Given that it's usually like a polypropylene type of material, they can go through the clothes washer, and then dry them out," said Mone. "That should do an effective job of killing pathogens, and washing away disease causing bacteria and viruses."
Mone also said for those plastic reusable grocery bags that can't go in the washing machine, using a Lysol wipe after every trip to the store should help to keep your bags clean.
He also mentioned that if you do notice a significant amount of meat juice in the bottom of your bag, or you have spilled cleaning materials such as bleach in your bag, it is always safest to throw your bag away and buy a new one.