Hmm, yes, you there. I see you trying to dodge the question, and it’s precisely the dodging that tells me you need to hear this difficult truth: Tote bags, like Sephora samples, are irresistible and insidious in equal measure. They are quite useful! They hold such promise for an imagined future! So many of them are free! And almost all of them are impossibly filthy.
There is a reasonable limit to how many tote bags you need in your life, and it’s quite likely that if you’re reading this article, you have a tote bag problem. Does the term “bag of bags” mean anything to you? If you answered yes, please know that you are among friends, and that help is here.
Ann Lightfoot, a professional organizer and a founding partner of Done & Done Home in New York, has some tough love to offer the tote-stashing set.
“Here is the truest thing about totes,” she said, “and we all know it: All totes are not created equally.” Some totes are shoddily made, the handles aren’t long enough or the size of the tote is simply not useful, which, according to Ms. Lightfoot, makes them “clutter at best and actual garbage at worst.”
Left unmanaged, tote bag collections can take over closets, drawers, car trunks — really, any space is a potential tote bag dumping ground. Some people, like Noreen McInnis, 33, a product marketer in Oakland, Calif., have made peace with the state of their vast collections of totes. “I recently realized I can ‘wear’ my enamel pins on my tote bags and now feel justified in continuing to hoard both,” Ms. McInnis said.
But others, like Hannah Campbell, 30, a production editor in New York, said their tote bag collecting comes with a negative side effect.
“I don’t have a single nice-looking bag because my collection of totes makes me feel like I don’t ‘need’ one,” Ms. Campbell said.
So why do we bother holding onto them? “We often get them for free, and so we think, ‘How good does a tote have to be? I didn’t even pay for it,’” Ms. Lightfoot said. “But this is a slippery slope of logic.” Keep only the ones you regularly use, she said, or totes that have some special meaning attached to them. (My ashes will be interred in my Barnard Bookforum tote.)
The good news for you and your impossibly large tote bag collection is that totes are easy to donate. Perhaps you, like Kate Lion, a 35-year-old homemaker from Boise, Idaho, are ready to start tackling the bags of bags. “I donated four bags of various totes before we moved, then opened up our storage unit to find boxes of totes,” she said. “I think they proliferate in the night.” As Ms. Lion knows, donating is one good option for finding a second life for those boxes of totes.
Use them to bring clothing donations to shelters, houses of worship or Goodwill, and leave them as part of the donation.
Bundle food donations for soup kitchens and food banks in reusable bags instead of disposable ones so the bags can be passed along to patrons.
Donate a stack of clean totes to short-term shelters, libraries, senior centers, preschools or charitable organizations like Bags4Kids.
Totes that are no longer serviceable can still be donated to organizations like ChicoBag’s Pay It Forward program.
But if your tote bag collection makes you happy, and it doesn’t have any ill effects on your life, by all means, well, carry on. Just … one more thing.
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Your tote bags are filthy. This is especially true of totes that are used for groceries; these should be cleaned regularly to ensure they remain free of bacteria that cause food-borne illness. (If you’re in the market for a new reusable grocery bag, this guide is for you.)
Nylon and lightweight cotton totes can be machine washed in cold water. Use a stain treatment product on particularly grimy totes; dirt, for example, is a protein stain, so choose an enzymatic pretreatment spray like Zout. For specific and identifiable stains that go beyond mere dirt, use the product best suited to the stain in question. (Need some direction? Start here.) When applying a stain treatment, pay special attention to the handles and bottom corners of the bag, which are likely to be the most in need of stain removal. Grocery totes that cannot be machine washed should still be regularly cleaned, either with an antibacterial wipe or an all-purpose spray.
Drying, however, should be left to nature rather than to machines, so opt for air-drying. Cotton bags tend to be wrinkled after laundering; if this doesn’t bother you, good! If it bothers you, come sit by me and I’ll tell you that you can certainly iron your tote bag — with spray starch, even — and also I will understand you completely.
Heavy canvas totes, such as the much beloved L.L. Bean Boat and Tote, can also be washed in the machine. But, caveat laundror: Machine washing a Boat and Tote is a bit like burying the family kitty in Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary” — it will come back, but it won’t be exactly the same. Washing a heavy canvas bag will soften it up, and it will lose some of its original structure and stiffness.
Another note on washing a heavy canvas bag: Because of its bulk, it can damage other things in the machine, so wash it on its own. And be warned: If you go this route, your bag might come out looking a little mangled. Not to worry; simply reshape the bag into its original form and let it air-dry right-side up.
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