NY Times: Those cotton tote bags aren't so good for the environment after all

The effort to ban single use plastic bags for things like shopping continues to be pushed by environmentalists who worry about the impact millions of those bags have on the environment. But the solution to the plastic bag problem may be worse than problem itself. The NY Times reported yesterday that the kind of reusable cotton tote bags that have replaced the plastic ones aren’t actually very environmentally friendly.

It turns out the wholehearted embrace of cotton totes may actually have created a new problem.

An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production, according to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark. That equates to daily use for 54 years — for just one bag.

But of course no one has just one bag. If you are using these types of tote bags then you probably have some in the trunk of your car and some in a drawer in your kitchen and maybe even some more stuffed in your closet. The chances that you’ll use any one bag for 50+ years is effectively zero. And it turns out the bags can’t be easily recycled.

Even when a tote does make it to a treatment plant, most dyes used to print logos onto them are PVC-based and thus not recyclable; they’re “extremely difficult to break down chemically,” said Christopher Stanev, the co-founder of Evrnu, a Seattle-based textile recycling firm. Printed patterns have to be cut out of the cloth; Mr. Stanev estimates 10 to 15 percent of the cotton Evrnu receives is wasted this way.

At which point there is the issue of turning old cloth into new, which is almost as energy intensive as making it in the first place…

The cotton tote dilemma, said Laura Balmond, a project manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular campaign, is “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape.”

How did this happen? The article points out it seemed to really take off back in 2007 with a $10 environmentally friendly tote bag that had the phrase “I am not a plastic bag” on it. That bag became a sensation to the point that people were lining up to buy them and even selling them on eBay.

Pretty quickly, everyone saw the marketing potential for their brand. Instead of giving shoppers free plastic bags that no one wanted to be seen with, you could charge them for cloth bags and let them carry your logo around with them all over town. And with the advent of bag branding, it also became a fashion statement. It wasn’t enough to have a generic bag when you could have a bag from the New Yorker or a certain cosmetics brand.

The cotton bags arguably do reduce the number of non-biodegradable plastic bags winding up in the ocean but they clearly have their own problems. The story never mentions paper bags which, unlike plastic ones, are biodegradable and, unlike cotton totes, don’t take as much energy to produce and aren’t a collectible fashion statement. Maybe this is a case where the boring middle ground is actually the best option.