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Cleaning Reusable Grocery Bags

Starting in 2013, cities across Massachusetts began to implement various versions of a single-use plastic bag ban, making reusable bags more prevalent for grocery shoppers.  A team of UMass Lowell Public Health students studied issues of reusable bag cleanliness by creating a project to assess habits of use and suggest ways of bag maintenance. The team includes Ross Goding, Nicole Kebler, AdorrahLe Khan, and Spencer Gifford.

To assess habits of use, the project team created an online questionnaire that measured frequency of use, washing habits, storage places, and other uses for reusable bags.

  • The team found that about half of survey participants never wash their reusable bags and                                                                                                                                                                         
    Reusable Grocery Bag Research
  • Only 3% consistently wash their reusable bags 
  • The data also revealed that reusable bags are used for multiple purposes, including laundry, transporting lunches, travel, and for taking clothing and equipment to and from the gym

Data from this survey allowed the team to identify three soils the Cleaning Laboratory uses for testing: synthetic sebum, representing human sweat, Hucker’s soil; which includes dirt, peanut butter, flour, and black dye; and, a sugar based soil of ketchup and chocolate syrup mixed with flour. These soils mimic the stains created by the use patterns found from the survey.

The team tested five Do It Yourself (DIY) recipes on reusable bags of different materials. Three of the cleaning formulations removed the soils.

  • The DIY formulations included products readily available and affordable  at grocery stores
  • Testing first used a Straight Line Washing Unit (SLW machine) which performs abrasive testing
  • Testing then was performed by hand, simulating washing the bag under a sink

Community Support

After the town of Westford passed a single use plastic bag ban, the team worked with the Westford Public Health officer to develop an informational brochure to teach residents how to remove soil from their bags. 

Lowell Earth Day

The students collaborated with Lowell TeleMedia Center to create a video message demonstrating the need for reusable bag washing. This PSA airs on the Lowell public access channel. 

They put on a workshop at the Lowell Senior Center for Healthy Lowell Week and at the Lowell Celebrates Earth Day Festival. The team also demonstrated bag cleaning for legislators and their aides at the Massachusetts State House during TURI's annual Champions of Toxics Use Reduction event.

Next Steps

The project team is working with Dr. Nancy Goodyear, Associate Professor in Biomedical and Nutritional Sciences at the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, at UMass Lowell in the TURI Disinfection Laboratory. They are assessing the roles of heat and cold on bacteria including E. coli and S. aureus on reusable bags of different materials.