Dear Recyclebank: What's the best way to clean reusable bags? They look too flimsy to go into the regular laundry. Should I spot-clean the insides or just hose them down? Also, what can I do with them once they start to tear? –Karen L.
Dear Karen: You may be surprised to know that the majority of reusable bags are made from polypropylene. Even the soft totes that look and feel like fabric are usually made of this plastic, identifiable as #5 plastic, or PP. It may surprise you even more to know that these bags are almost always machine-washable. Polypropylene is a durable plastic that withstands use quite well. Reusable bag manufacturer Earthwise Bags recommends you machine-wash your polypropylene bags on the gentle cycle. Once done, let them line dry — do not put them in the dryer, or use bleach on them. For those reusable plastic bags you aren’t comfortable putting in the washing machine, wipe them down with a soaped-up cloth after each use. Before storing your bags, make sure they have dried completely. This will prevent bacteria or mold growth, and extend the lifespan of your bags. (A note: Please don’t put reusable bags in with your curbside recycling, even if they’re marked #5! If your hauler accepts #5 plastics, they are most likely referring to hard #5 plastics, not flimsy or film-like ones.)
Of course, not all reusable bags are created equal. Reusable bags are also sometimes made from cotton or canvas (made of linen, derived from the flax plant). These natural fiber bags can be washed and dried like you would regular laundry, however, mixing reusable bags and laundry in a single load is not recommended as reusable bags are exposed to food borne bacteria. For screen printed bags, the American Cleaning Institute recommends you wash them in cold water for the first few washes to try to prevent colors from bleeding.
Inevitably, every reusable bag will eventually rip or wear through. So what can you do to prolong the lifespan of your bag? Always follow the proper care instructions — drying bags in your dryer can be the death of them. If you see a loose thread hanging from your bag, sew it up before it has the chance to break, and reinforce weak seams with duct tape. There are plenty of funky ways to repurpose your reusable bags too. For example, if you’ve got a tear at the bottom of your bag, consider using it as a hanging tomato planter.
If you’re in the market for new reusable bags, check out Chico Bag, a company that accepts returned worn and damaged reusable bags to be recycled and repurposed.
In cases when your bag is beyond repair, be sure to dispose of it properly. Contact your local hauler to find out if they’ll accept reusable bags. (And remember: If your bag is marked with an RIC number that your hauler accepts, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable — you should still ask your hauler.) If not, you may be able to bring them to your local store drop-off for plastic bags. Tyvek bags, for example, are made of HDPE (#2) are accepted in store drop-off sites.