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Is it hygienically justified to skip plastic produce packaging?

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

Many retailers are shifting away from plastic to be more environmentally conscious. After all, people in the United States use billions of plastic bags each year and only 9 percent 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. Although, they still buy oranges in mesh bags. But this no-bag practice might have a drawback—a very unsanitary one.

The unwanted result of skip plastic packaging is that 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 handling your purchase.

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 is present on a bathroom doorknob. That's why supermarket produce ranks highly as one of the dirtiest surfaces in 12 places you go all the time.

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.

Luckily, you can help protect the planet while protecting your produce. You can buy reusable nylon, cotton or mesh bags like these. 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, or buy a new one from the store. You can reuse them 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 before preparing them. Different produce has different needs, from soaking to scrubbing to a gentle rinse. Washing them all the same way is one of the 20 produce mistakes you probably didn't know you were making. 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.


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