Wait, Are Tote Bags Actually Not Great for the Environment?

updated Apr 30, 2019
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127 countries and countless cities around the world have banned the use of plastic shopping bags — with New York being the latest. But a story on Quartz this week — as reported by Marketplace — looked into whether the cotton tote bags that many people are using instead are any better for the environment than the plastic they’re replacing.

“There’s no easy answer,” is the easiest answer the article manages to give. Plastic bags don’t biodegrade and are littering our oceans (and the stomachs of adorable and non-adorable sea creatures alike). But it turns out, other than the litter, the environmental impact of a cotton tote bag is actually far worse. The piece cites a study done by Denmark’s ministry of environment and food that came to similar conclusions as previous studies: when the manufacturing impact is taken into account — including harm to the ozone, climate change, and pollution, the plastic litter is nowhere near the same impact as cotton tote bags.

“Cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags,” concluded the Danish study. And, it turns out, organic cotton is even worse — needing to have 20,000 uses versus 7,000 (this is due to the yield and how much water the process uses). What about paper bags, you might wonder? Well, the article predicts they would “surely have deleterious side-effects like increasing deforestation.” Paper-bag manufacturing also requires more energy and water than plastic, so it could be even worse for the environment.

If that’s not quite bleak enough, the article ends with something to keep you thinking: the bag you carry to the store matters far less than what you carry home inside it and how. Walking or cycling versus driving, and buying locally grown food and less meat will be what actually makes a difference. As to the answer on the bags: well, whatever you have in your house now, just keep using it until it falls apart. “And whatever you do, try not to buy new ones.”