Should you swap plastic bags for tote bags to reduce your impact?

Credit: Kevin Grieve/Unsplash

When you’re looking for advice on how to reduce your environmental impact, pretty much every article you come across recommends swapping plastic bags for cotton tote bags. This seems like good advice — after all, we’re in the midst of a crisis of plastic pollution — but it turns out that it may not be so simple, and tote bags may actually be worse for the environment.

The statistics

In 2011 the UK’s Environment Agency conducted a life cycle study on carrier bags, looking at seven different types of bag: paper, cotton, a biodegradable bag made from starch, and four different plastic bags of different density.

The key outcome of the study was that cotton tote bags had an environmental impact many times larger than that of a standard plastic shopping bag.

The study estimated that a cotton tote bag’s total carbon footprint was 598.6lb of CO2e. This compared to 3.48lb of CO2e for a standard plastic bag. That means that you would need to use the tote bag 172 times for every 1 time you used the plastic bag.

This is mostly due to the resources needed to grow the cotton for the bag, including energy, water and fertilisers. Plastic, on the other hand, is a by-product of the oil industry, and so requires no new resources to produce. This, in itself, points to the issue with this study, though. It centres around the carbon footprint of the bag, but doesn’t incorporate have a way to incorporate the impact of the oil industry which plastic is a part of, or factors like the contribution to land and marine pollution. So I would recommend taking these statistics with a pinch of salt, but they do serve as a useful reminder to think about the whole picture of supposedly eco-friendly items.

The real problem with tote bags

The study referenced above compares the impact of producing one cotton tote bag with producing one plastic bag. But what if we could take the production itself out of the picture?

Today we live in a world full of ‘stuff’, and bags are a part of this. Tote bags were originally billed as an environmentally friendly option because one bag could be reused again and again without breaking down in the same way as flimsy plastic. But as they grew in popularity, businesses cottoned on to it (pun very much intended) and they began to become an item of fashion.

This is embodied in the 2007 launch of fashion designer Anya Hindmarch’s tote bag with ‘I’m not a plastic bag’ printed on it. Hindmarch produced a limited run of the bags which were sold at Hindmarch boutiques in London. They sold out in a matter of hours, and bags were quickly being resold on Ebay for upwards of £400 — they’d been sold instore for £5. They were then released en masse in Sainsbury’s stores, with 80,000 people queuing to get one when they released. The bag then went worldwide with similar effect. In Taiwain there was such demand that riot police were called in to control a stampede, and 30 people ended up in hospital.

Whether Hindmarch had environmentalism in mind when she designed the bag or not, the result was more mindless consumerism.

As well as becoming a fashion statement, tote bags have also become a marketing channel. They’re cheap to produce and easy to print logos and slogans on to, and it’s an easy way to spread a message as people carry the bags around in public. Therefore, tote bags are commonly given away at events and conferences, as well as being sold as merchandise by brands. This means that they’re available in abundance for free, or at minimal cost. They’ve become unending in the same way that plastic bags are (or were, before the 5p cost). The ‘bag of bags’ under our sink has swapped from plastic to cotton.

That reason at the heart of swapping plastic bag for tote bag, of reusing an item to reduce waste, is still valid. But this has been dampened by an over supply. If we each had a couple of tote bags that we looked after and reused for life, then it would be a great idea. But picking up a new one at every event, or each time you forget your other bag, isn’t sustainable.

The solution

So if canvas bags aren’t the answer, what is? It seems to me that the answer lies in reusing what you have. Most of us still have lots plastic bags shoved in a cupboard somewhere. And most of us have a few tote bags that we’ve bought for the slogan, or been handed at an event. Focus on using those, instead of buying a new bag — be it plastic or cotton. Make it a habit to take a reusable bag with you everywhere you go, and use it.

If you don’t have any bags at home, or yours are really falling apart too much to use, then consider:

  • Make a bag using upcycled materials, such as an old curtain or dress
  • Second-hand bags. You could buy one from a charity shop, or ask around your friends — someone’s bound to have an excess.
  • Invest in a backpack that you can carry purchases in, and that will last a long time.
  • Buy a reusable bag made from recycled materials, such as a ChicoBag made from recycled plastic bottles

It’s also worth remembering that choices like this are relatively minor when it comes to reducing our collective environmental impact and mitigating the effects of climate change. In terms of bags, you can likely attribute a much higher percentage of your personal carbon footprint to how you use that bag — do you regularly buy meat and dairy products or follow seasonal trends in fast fashion? Do you get to the grocery shop by car, bike, or foot?

If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact: dried vs tinned beans and which kind of milk to buy.