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Davis, California

Friday, April 19, 2024

Cotton totes do not solve the plastic bag problem

Collecting cotton tote bags is not as eco-conscious as you think

Plastic bag bans are becoming more common worldwide, which is a change for the better. It’s a wonderful thing that we are slowing their spread, since plastic bags dispense endless amounts of forever-around plastic particles into the environment. With the litany of problems our environment is currently facing, I am proud of how parts of the world have mobilized over about two decades to pivot away from the mass use of plastic bags. Still, some of our current innovators have taken the goodwill from the changes a few steps too far. 

One of the most trendy replacement options for the traditional plastic bag is the tote bag, and while decidedly not plastic, they aren’t the be-all-end-all solution to carry things around in an eco-friendly way. Tote bags have their upsides, but it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, so make sure to think a little longer when savvy businesspeople and clever marketers are trying to thrust them into your hands at any and every opportunity.

While the plastic bags that hold groceries at the convenience store or food at the take-out restaurant don’t biodegrade, they don’t drastically affect our environment because little energy and resources are used to create them. Technically called low-density polyethylene bags (LDPE), if you use them for your food and then once more for your waste before disposing of them correctly, the impact they have on the environment is low (a correctly disposed of LDPE bag is incinerated). 

On the other hand, most tote bags, depending on material, are far worse for the environment because of the resources used to create them as well as the difficulty to recycle them. Organic cotton tote bags, the most trendy and “green” option for tote bags, are the worst of all common tote materials. You need to reuse an organic cotton tote 20,000 times for its creation to be better for the environment than just using plastic bags (normal cotton is 7,100). Cotton uses so much water and labor that it’s not efficient for bags, and the fact that cotton tote bags aren’t compostable doesn’t help (unlike green single-use bags or many brown paper bags).

In addition, most cotton tote bags are a lot less recyclable than they let on, especially when they work as fashion statements. The actual bags themselves are usually recyclable. However, every single drop of dye pressed into each bag hurts their recyclability. The logo-covered flashy tote bag that inflates its carrier’s ego to the max is probably covered with so much ink that most of it goes straight to the trash bin. Recycling cotton is so inefficient that it’s almost as good for textile mills to start from scratch in the first place, so as far as impact goes, maybe they should head to the rubbish anyway (please recycle them if you can, some reuse is always better than none).

Sadly, businesses aren’t going to be part of this solution. “Green” bags are great for the company image, and totes are basically walking billboards. The value a company gets from a person toting around their organic cotton bag (20,000 times reused, otherwise inefficient) is so much that any marketer worth their salt will be begging for customers to take them. This problem is not getting any smaller.

We are stuck choosing the lesser of two evils. The best piece of advice I can give is to stop taking or accepting more bags and reuse the ones you already have. Nobody needs a tote bag for every outfit (lots of people have totes they never use, which is the worst), and maybe next time you are in line at checkout, think twice about whether you need a bag or bags for your items. Try and make do with all the bags, plastic, cotton or any other material you already have, and avoid taking more. Until there is an awakening and the bags used by the mainstream are plant-based and undyed so that they can be thrown into the compost at the end of their lifespan, there is no greater option than carrying your groceries in your own hands.

As a last aside, I wanted to put this issue into perspective and note that every small lifestyle change a person can make does have an impact in the world, so there is more action anyone can take in addition to forsaking their massive tote bag collection. If you are trying to lower your impact on the environment even more, something like electing to bike instead of drive or forgoing airplanes whenever possible will make a much larger dent in your emissions. To make a long story short, doing the little things to help the environment does add up, and reusing bags as many times as possible before disposing of them correctly is a very easy way to make a positive impact.

Written by: Alex Motawi — almotawi@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.



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