Plastic has a common bad credit, and disposable plastic bags are just one of the undesirable environmental obstacles that take ages to rot. They start out as fossil fuels and end up in landfills and the sea. We also know they generate more greenhouse gas emissions and more toxic air pollution, which increases the climate crisis.
Then came the cotton tote bag, a savior to disposable plastic, a reusable alternative that became compatible with conscious consumerism and entered the world of fashion marketing.
As the cotton tote trend caught on and fashion lovers boastfully praised their cotton bags, marketers caught on too, and soon they became an easy advertising tool, frequently freely given away without a purchase needed.
Organic cotton tote bags need 54 years to rot
Recently, the New York Times printed findings from a 2018 lifecycle assessment by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, which told an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production.
That compares to daily use for 54 years for just one bag. For people who have more than one tote, it would need many lifetimes of wear and offsetting. The fashion industry looks to have a new intricacy amongst its sustainability efforts.
Cotton is greatly water-intensive, which according to the Circular Laboratory needs between 10,000 and 20,000 liters to create one kilogram of cotton. Recycling a tote is challenging, with many branded logos which need to be cut from the cloth as the lettering is often neither recyclable or decomposable.
The Danish assessment further goes on to say that even with the benefits of producing organic cotton, using less fertilizer and pesticides, conventional cotton requires fewer resources and therefore also less wears for offsetting.
Single-use of anything is a poor idea
While many disposable, single-use items in fashion and convenience are a bad idea, the best way to reduce one’s personal footprint is to stop acquiring more cotton totes and bags and use those we already have until they are no longer useable.
Laura Balmond, a Project Manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular campaign, told the New York Times the cotton tot dilemma is “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape.”
The answer, while not straightforward, is that not every product requires a bag. Declining a free tote when offered, when you already have eight at home, maybe the best place to start.