Your cotton tote bags are absolutely fine

A decorative image of a cotton tote in front of a greenery background

Photo: Olinda (Shutterstock)

Last week the New York Times published an article by Grace Cook who got half of Twitter talking on the “cotton tote crisis”. At the center of this article – and the multiple tweets promoting it – is an alarming statistic: “An organic cotton tote must be used 20,000 times to offset its overall production impact. Of course, this is cause for concern and confusion. Aren’t reusable bins meant to be better for the environment than plastic?

Yes, and they still are; even in context, this number of 20,000 reuses is misleading. The study it came from is called ‘Grocery Bag Lifecycle Assessment’ and it was published by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in February 2018. (You can read the full study here if you want.) Let’s break it down.

Where does the figure of 20,000 come from?

If you want to understand that number of 20,000, it helps to know a bit of the terminology. This type of study is called a life cycle assessment (LCA), which the authors describe as “a standardized methodology that takes into account the potential environmental impacts associated with the resources required to produce, use and dispose of the product, as well as the potential emissions that may arise during its disposal. Here’s how they explain their method of calculating reuse numbers:

The number of primary reuses for each transport bag, end-of-life scenario and impact category was calculated assuming that X times reuse of a transport bag avoided the corresponding use X times of the LDPE reference [low-density polyethylene] carrying bag with medium characteristics.

For reference, “primary reuse” means to use the bag for its intended use, that is, transporting groceries.

Basically, the authors analyzed the environmental impact of different types of grocery bags from the cradle (the manufacturing plant) to the grave (the recycling plant or the incinerator). Then they directly compared those results with data from an average, unrecycled LDPE grocery bag, the kind that might say “Thank you” in red letters.

The figure of 20,000 reuses is relative. That doesn’t mean, as the New York Times article says, that you have to reuse an organic cotton tote 20,000 times to offset “its overall production impact.” This means that an organic cotton tote has the same environmental impact as 20,000 plastic bags. It also implies that he “saves” 20,000 bags, which the authors state up front in the summary: “[F]or each time a bag is reused, it avoids the full life cycle of the reference bag.

In addition to being misquoted, the number of 20,000 reuses is probably not that realistic for three main reasons. First, they doubled all the numbers of organic cotton bags because they are smaller than the average LDPE bag, but only about 2 liters. Halve that and you’re already at 10,000 reuses. Second, this study looked at 14 “impact categories”, including ozone depletion. The authors attribute a high number of cotton bin reuse to this category alone, mainly due to the electricity required for crop irrigation. Ozone layer depletion remains a concern, but right now the biggest threat is not ozone-depleting CFCs; it is CO2 and methane emissions that contribute to climate change. If you only look at the climate change impact category – which is measured in kilograms of CO2 emissions – the reuse count for two organic cotton tote bags drops to 149, or 74.5 to one. This number is right next to the biggest and scariest on every table.

Last but not least, waste is not included in the environmental impact categories. The authors considered the environmental impact of LDPE bagged litter to be negligible, so they did not include it. In all fairness, this may be true for Denmark, where the study was conducted, but for humanity as a whole, single-use plastic waste is far from a negligible concern.

Plastic bags are bad

Using LDPE bags as a standard is smart because it highlights their biggest flaw: they are extraordinarily cheap to manufacture. This is what the manufacturing process looks like, according to an April 2020 blog post from Columbia University Climate School:

The energy contained in plastic bags comes first of all from the extraction of the raw materials necessary for their manufacture, natural gas and petroleum, the extraction of which requires a lot of energy. The raw materials then have to be refined, which requires even more energy. Once in a processing plant, the raw materials are processed and undergo polymerization to create the building blocks of plastic. These tiny granules of polyethylene resin can be mixed with recycled polyethylene chips. They are then transported by truck, train or boat to facilities where, at high temperature, an extruder shapes the plastic into a thin film. The film is flattened, then cut into pieces. Then it is sent to the manufacturers to be made into bags. The plastic bags are then packaged and transported around the world to vendors. While polyethylene can be reprocessed and used to make new plastic bags, most plastic bags are only used once or twice before being incinerated or dumped in landfills. The Wall Street Journal estimated that Americans use and throw away 100 billion plastic bags each year; and the EPA found that less than five percent is recycled.

Recycling numbers vary; in its unified approach to reducing single-use plastic, the United Nations quotes a 2017 study which estimates that around 9% of plastic is recycled, 12% is incinerated and a whopping 79% ends up in landfills. But whether the recycling rates are 5% or 9%, the bigger picture is Wrong. It’s a shame that turning fossil fuels into billions of pieces of waste is less resource-intensive to start with than making cotton or composite bags, which can be reused indefinitely. It’s even worse that plastic production is expected to double over the next 20 years, despite a growing number of people knowing how bad things are already.

What can you do to help?

Please don’t give up and throw away your reusable bags – they are so much better than single use plastic –or even paper–Bags. Bring them with you to the store, every time. It’s okay to buy more bags if you don’t have enough, but do you know what’s even better than buying new ones? Get them for free. Extra tote bags are everywhere these days: free batteries, Buy Nothing groups, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and your own closet. Taking a few bags out of someone’s hands gives it a second life and keeps it away from the landfill.

Speaking of landfills, used bins made of natural materials will eventually break down if that’s where they end up. But it is best to find a textile recycling service in your area. They are not very common, so you may need to drop off your contributions at a fabric store. It’s always better than throwing them in the trash.

Finally, don’t forget to use your brain every time you read media coverage on the fossil fuel industries. Powerful corporations around the world are profiting generously from the uncontrolled extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, which is the only reason we’re in this bloody mess. Decreasing your individual dependence on fossil fuels is a good thing, and oil and gas companies know it. To be honest, they’re a little freaked out: if consumers stop using their products, their valuable profits will stop increasing and heading to the right. Don’t let them convince you that it is something else.

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