Is It Food-Safe to Skip the Plastic Produce Bags at the Supermarket?

Going plastic-free might be environmentally friendly, but grocery stores have a dirty secret. Luckily, the solution is sustainable—and sanitary.

If you’ve grocery shopped lately, you know many stores are shifting away from plastic to be more environmentally conscious. Some stores are charging a few cents for each bag used, or eliminating them entirely. After all, people in the United States use billions of plastic bags each year and only 9% of them are recycled.

Many shoppers want to do their part, too. Using reusable bags is a great place to start, but some customers are also abandoning the thin, single-use plastic bags for produce. But this practice might have a drawback—a very unsanitary one.

Is It Safe to Skip the Bag?

Well, not exactly. While it might seem like the more sustainable choice, when you place broccoli or apples directly into the cart or onto the conveyor belt, your food isn’t just touching one surface—it’s touching everything that came before it. The person in front of you could have purchased raw meat or the cashier could have been handling dirty cash before picking up your bushel of kale (and germs shouldn’t get in the way of enjoying these tasty kale recipes).

The dirty truth is that grocery stores are not the cleanest places. Tote bag company Reuse This Bag found that a traditional grocery store cart has 73,356 CFU, or colony-forming unit, per square inch—that is almost 361 times more bacteria than are present on a bathroom doorknob. (You won’t believe these other spots in your home are so dirty.)

The checkout conveyor belt isn’t much better. Think of all the food items that travel on it each day, each week and each year. And while the PVC material they’re made from can last up to 30 years, the surface is porous and hard to keep clean—even with constant scrubbing.

Finally, consider not just what your produce is touching, but who has touched it. Grocery store staff, cashiers and other customers all come into contact with it, and going bagless increases the exposure. And that doesn’t factor in the people (and potentially animals) who touched it before it got to the store.

Alternatives to Plastic Bags

Luckily, you can help protect the planet while protecting your produce. You can buy reusable nylon, cotton or mesh bags like these. You can even use mesh bags to make a scrubbie. Just remember to give all of your eco-friendly bags—both for produce and groceries—a good clean on a regular basis.

If you’re buying nuts, flour or other foods in bulk, you can use a mason jar—just write down the weight of the vessel so it doesn’t add to the price. For spices or dried herbs, clean out an old glass spice container—especially since spice jar germs can be incredibly germy—or buy a new one from the store. They can be reused each time you need to stock up.

Keeping It Clean

Ultimately, no matter what you do, your produce is most likely going to come into contact with dirt and germs. It’s a good rule of thumb to clean your fruit and veggies (even if you buy organic!) before preparing them. Different produce has different needs, from soaking to scrubbing to a gentle rinse. And just because a produce item’s peel isn’t eaten, like on a lemon or avocado, it doesn’t mean you should skip rinsing.

Here's What to Cook with Your Squeaky-Clean Produce
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Kim Bussing
Kim Bussing is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She has written for publications including Reader’s Digest, Modern Farmer, Clean Plates and Vice, among others, and she is working on her first novel. She is always on the hunt for the perfect gluten-free cinnamon roll.