Wait, Reusable Cotton Bags Are Bad for the Environment?

A recent report claims that organic cotton bags are worse for the planet than plastic. Let’s take a deeper look at the impacts of our grocery-toting options.

When you go to the grocery store and you forget your reusable bags, what do you choose: paper or plastic? Plastic is horrible for marine life, but paper can be wasteful and lead to the deforestation of our few remaining wooded areas. Is there a lesser evil?

According to a recent article published in Quartz, that’s not even your biggest problem. Apparently, your cotton reusable tote isn’t even as environmentally innocent as it claims. So let’s take a moment to do a rundown of the environmental issues with each bag.

Use Plastic Bags

Plastic Grocery Bags

Okay, these are single use, they don’t biodegrade, they are acidifying our oceans, and they are filling our marine life with little bits of toxic microplastic. Plastic bags are definitely not good. But some studies have deemed paper and cotton to be even worse than plastic, at least when considering all facets of the environment, besides marine litter.

“But when taking into account other factors, like the impact of manufacturing on climate change, ozone depletion, water use, air pollution, and human toxicity, those classic, plastic shopping bags are actually the most benign of the current common options,” writes Zoë Schlanger for Quartz.

Does that mean we should keep plastic bags around? Definitely not. But it does go to show that sustainability isn’t always clear-cut.

Man and dog in the park

Paper Bags

When taking into consideration the water waste, carbon emissions, air pollution and severe deforestation caused by the production of one unbleached paper grocery bag, it becomes clear that they’re not the environmental angel we’ve been lead to believe.

To have the same overall environmental impact as a plastic bag, you’d need to reuse a paper bag at least 43 times (according to a recent life-cycle assessment out of Denmark).

Let’s be honest, most paper bags don’t even make it through one use without shredding. Trees serve a much more important purpose of soaking up carbon from the atmosphere—so let’s stop chopping them down to make bags. They’re just not living up to their environmental cost.

That’s why we have reusable bags, right?

Reusable coffee cup, insulated drink bottle and shopping tote bag

Cotton Grocery Totes

Prepare to be shocked: according to that same assessment, you’d need to reuse an organic cotton tote over 20,000 times in order to achieve the same overall environmental impact as a single-use plastic grocery bag!

Apparently, organic cotton is even more environmentally intensive than conventional cotton. While cotton is a massive consumer of resources on its own, organic cotton has a 30 percent lower yield rate, meaning it requires more resources to produce the same quantity. That means more water, more carbon emissions, and a much, much larger carbon footprint.

Putting this Into Perspective

Again, this assessment did not take marine pollution into consideration, so keep that in mind, because that is where plastic bags perform truly dismally. But it is good to remember that just because an alternative sounds more “eco”, you never know for sure until you peek behind the scenes.

Plastic bag bans are becoming more and more widely accepted, but it’s important to consider what will replace them. Will you get a plastic-based polyester bag? A hefty canvas bag? Or will you reuse a cardboard box, offered at the grocery store as a way to recycle their nonstop supply of used shipping boxes?

No matter what sort of bag you choose, the most environmentally-friendly choice is to just stop throwing things out. The fewer resources we consume, the healthier our environment will be overall.

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92 comments

Daniel N
Daniel N13 hours ago

thanks for posting

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Hui S
Hui S3 days ago

thanks for sharing. certainly food for thought!

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Carla G
Carla G7 days ago

Thank you

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R13 days ago

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Jeanne Rogers
Jeanne R13 days ago

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Lesa DiIorio
Lesa D18 days ago

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Vincent T
William T19 days ago

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Martha P
Martha P19 days ago

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Leo C
Leo C20 days ago

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