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Are Cotton Tote Bags Bad for the Environment?

Cotton tote bags seem like a sustainable option. According to past research, they might not be as good for the environment as you think.

Written by
Kylie Fuller

In recent years, cotton tote bags have risen to popularity as an eco-friendly alternative to single-use plastic bags. Many brands and retailers have made the switch, from fashion brands to grocery stores. But the proliferation of the cotton tote as a staple accessory has created a new problem.

A New York Times article that went viral on Twitter this week called "The Cotton Tote Crisis" shared some surprising information. According to a 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, a single organic cotton tote would need to be used every day for 54 years (aka nearly 20,000 times) in order to offset its environmental impact. So, why are cotton totes' footprints so big?

The Issue with Cotton Totes

Cotton is water-intensive, so it uses extensive resources during production. It's also difficult to dispose of cotton totes once you're done with them. Many have logos or graphics printed on them with dyes that are PVC-based (aka polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic plastic polymer), which isn't recyclable.

You also can't put them in your backyard compost heap. You would have to find a municipal compost that accepts textiles like cotton—something that's much easier said than done. Because of these issues, Maxine Bédat, a director at the New Standard Institute, told the NYT "only 15% of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year actually makes its way to textile depositories."

But here's the burning question you're probably dying to ask: Can cotton totes actually be worse than plastic bags? Zoë Schlanger, an environmental reporter, poked a few holes in the study the NYT was referring to, shedding light on the dilemma. On Twitter, Schlanger pointed out that the study assumed you would need to use two tote bags to replace a single plastic bag (the cotton totes they used in the study were smaller), but this assumption doubles the environmental impact of using tote bags.

She also noted that one shocking study statistic—you would need to use a tote bag 7,000 times to meet the same environmental impact as a plastic bag—is based on a single marker: how much the two options contribute to ozone depletion. Tote bags are high here because of their water-intensive production. But "if you were looking at climate impacts, that number would be more like 50," she says—not 7,000.

A Solution to the Problem

The tote bag dilemma exists because we're buying (or being given) more tote bags than we need. An endless collection isn't good for anyone—you or the planet.

Companies often advertise their planet-friendly values with a complimentary cotton tote bag, but it would be more planet-friendly to let consumers choose whether they want one or not before sending a product in one. If you want to support your favorite brands, choose to purchase branded items like totes from them. But if you receive one without asking, politely ask the brand if they can build in an option to opt in to receive a tote.

That way, there aren't millions of unwanted cotton totes being sent out into the world. Aka, for many of us, an entire collection of totes stuffed into another tote under the sink... just waiting to be used.