Report: Cotton Totes as Bad for the Environment as Plastic Bags

According to a life-cycle assessment from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, reusable cotton totes — and ones made from organic cotton in particular — actually wreak more havoc on the environment than oft-maligned plastic bags do. And no, this is not a belated April Fools joke.

As reported by Quartz, the study found that the “classic, plastic shopping bags are actually the most benign of the current common options,” once “the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity” were taken into account.

And though no “marine litter” was taken into account — a curious oversight, given the “swirling gyres of forever-materials slowly filling our oceans” — the evidence seemed pretty overwhelming.

“Cotton bags must be reused thousands of times before they meet the environmental performance of plastic bags,” the story said, and the researchers found (as others have) that “organic cotton is worse than conventional cotton when it comes to overall environmental impact.”

How much worse? “Cartoonishly” is the scientific term, I believe. “According to the report, organic cotton bags have to be reused many more times than conventional cotton bags (20,000 versus 7,000 times),” to justify their impact.

So, “are plastic bags better or worse… than a cotton tote? Let’s rip this bandaid off right away: There’s no easy answer.” But, the story said, the “simplest advice for individuals seems to be this: Whatever you have in your house now — be it a pile of cotton totes, or a jumble of plastic bags — don’t throw them out.”

You can read more about it at Quartz.

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  • John

    i wonder if they also considered that a plastic bag will never degrade, while a cotton tote would much faster.

  • Katie

    I got an idea from a neighbor, not sure how much better this is… double up two paper grocery bags (for strength) and use them until they are pretty beat up. Then recycle and get two more.