Your Reusable Tote Bag Actually Isn't as Environmentally Friendly as You Think

You’d have to use your beloved cotton tote at least 327 times for it to be more carbon-friendly than plastic.

Close up of a female shopper with a canvas tote bag pushing a shopping cart down the isle of a specialty grocery store.
Photo Credit: Jeff Baumgart/Shutterstock

Bring your own bag to the grocery store. We all know this practice is good for the planet, but even the most environmentally minded consumer might come up to the cashier minus a carryall with one perfectly good reason: you forgot.

Faced with this conundrum, should you:

  1. Buy a new canvas tote that you can always reuse? 
  2. Ask—just this once!—for a disposable, landfill-clogging plastic bag?
  3. Or, per a classic Portlandia sketch, simply don’t forget?

In a perfect world—or at least in Portlandia—the answer is of course C.

Watch what happens when Jack McBrayer forgets his shopping bag in Portlandia:

But in the real world, where people forget all the time, you’ll want to choose the ol’ standby, B, if you want the least eco-guilt.

Choosing plastic might sound counterintuitive, but as The Atlantic pointed out, canvas bags are actually much worse for the environment compared to their flimsy, single-use counterparts.

In a U.K. Environment Agency study, researchers crunched the environmental tally of various carrier bags such as the standard high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag you’d get from the supermarket, as well as paper, cotton and recycled-polypropylene bags.

They found that reusing a HDPE bag once (as a waste bin liner for instance) has the same environmental impact as reusing a cotton tote bags 327 times, a recycled polypropylene plastic 26 times and a paper bag seven times.

All told, as Business Insider noted from the UKEA study, a conventional plastic bag has a total carbon footprint of only 3.48 lbs.—compared to the whopping 598.6 lbs. emitted by a cotton bag.

Here’s the takeaway. Bags that are designed to last longer require more resources—growing, harvesting, manufacturing, transportation—which means they have a greater environmental impact across their entire lifecycle.

Look, we all know that plastic bags are an eco-nightmare that harms the environment and kills wildlife. That’s why many cities and even entire states have initiated bans or imposed fees on these non-biodegradable, petroleum-based menaces. If they haven’t crammed up the space under your kitchen sink, they’re getting stuck in storm drains or in the stomachs of any number of marine animals, from fish, dolphins and whales to sea turtles and birds.

But cotton is quite possibly a bigger planetary scourge. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton crops account for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides. In 1995, contaminated run-off from cotton fields killed more than 240,000 fish in Alabama alone. 

Cotton is also incredibly thirsty. “It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans,” the WWF says. Cotton isn’t even regularly recycled—at least many grocery stores have plastic bag recycling bins.

Thanks to the green movement, tote bags are now as ubiquitous as the plastic bags they were meant to replace. You’ll find them lining supermarket checkout aisles, given away for free at clothing stores and probably resigned to a sad pile in your closet. I did a rough inventory of how many reuseable totes I’ve accumulated and stopped counting after 13 out of embarrassment.  

So what can you do the next time you forget your bag at the grocery store? Besides “don’t forget,” you can keep smaller, foldable bags in your pocket or handbag, or even use the type that can easily hook onto your keychain. As for me, I’ve decided that from now on, my innumerable tote collection will just live in the trunk of my car.

Lorraine Chow is a freelance writer and reporter based in South Carolina.

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