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Why cotton tote bags are killing the planet too

By Don-Alvin Adegeest

26 Aug 2021

Fashion

Image: Tote Bag via Pexels

We know plastic has a bad reputation, and disposal plastic bags are just one of the unnecessary environmental problems that take centuries to decompose. They start out as fossil fuels and end up in landfills and the ocean, truly one of mankind’s worst inventions. We also know they create more greenhouse gas emissions and more toxic air pollution, which exacerbates the climate crisis.

Then came the cotton tote bag, a saviour to disposable plastic, a cute reusable option that became synonymous with conscious consumerism and entered the world of fashion marketing. As the tote trend caught on and fashionistas proudly touted their cotton bags wherever they went, marketers caught on too, and soon they became an easy advertising tool, often freely given away without a purchase required.

From magazine subscriptions like the iconic New Yorker, to museums, cultural institutions, super markets, department stores and indie boutiques, the cotton tote is everywhere, and can usually be acquired at no cost.

It takes 54 years to offset one organic cotton tote bag

The New York Times this week published findings from a 2018 lifecycle assessment by the Danish Ministry of Environment and Food, which cited an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production. That equates to daily use for 54 years for just one bag. For most people who own more than one tote, it would require several lifetimes of wears and offsetting. The fashion industry seems to have a new problem amongst its sustainability efforts.

Cotton is extremely water intensive, which according to the Circular Laboratory requires between 10,000 and 20,000 litres to produce one kilogram of cotton. Recycling a tote is challenging, with many branded with 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 the benefits of producing organic cotton, using less fertilizer and pesticides, conventional cotton requires less resources and therefore also less wears for offsetting.

Single-use of anything is a bad 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 straight forward, is that not every product requires a bag. Declining a free tote when offered, when you already have eight at home, may be the best place to start.