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How Sustainable Are Tote Bags Really?

I just went through my collection of tote bags and counted about 20. From brands, given by friends or ones I brought home as vacation souvenirs. And these are just the pretty ones. That’s not counting the Safeway, Walmart and Dollarama bags you get when you go grocery shopping and you forgot one of your 20 tote bags at home.


But, I know I’m not the only one. You can see them all over town with various prints, quotes and designs. They look pretty and give the owner an immediate intellectual confirmation and the feeling of doing something good. For years, we have been told now that plastic bags are evil and tote bags are the solution. But it seems that — once again — we’ve taken it a bit too far and created a whole new eco-dilemma.


For years, we have been told now that plastic bags are evil and tote bags are the solution. But it seems that — once again — we’ve taken it a bit too far and created a whole new eco-dilemma.


So, one must wonder: How sustainable are tote bags really? The answer to this question is not as clear as you might think. Recent studies show a much more complicated picture.


tote bag on a green fil


Let's Dive Deeper


Plastic bags have earned a rather bad reputation over the years. They are produced through natural resources, are typically only used once, and end up in nature, lakes and oceans. Consequently, numerous countries and cities worldwide have banned or implemented taxes on them in an effort to reduce its numbers. As a result, paper bags and particularly reusable tote bags have become our new shopping companions. Companies, stores and organizations have seized the opportunity to promote their brand by printing their logo, funny quotes, and visionary statements onto these bags. They have become the ideal “sustainable” marketing tool for companies that otherwise aren’t too strong in their eco endeavours.


But, Are All Tote Bags Sustainable?


A recent study found out that we have to use a cotton bag at least 131 (this number varies depending on the source, but it’s a high number) times for it to reduce its impact on climate change. To have a comparable environmental footprint to a plastic bag, they need to be used even more.

Why is that so? The cultivation of cotton requires an extreme amount of water, fertilizer and pesticides. Cotton production has a tremendous impact on the land. On the website of WWF it says the following about cotton production:


“Cotton’s most prominent environmental impacts result from the use of agrochemicals (especially pesticides), the consumption of water, and the conversion of habitat to agricultural use. Diversion of water and its pollution by cotton growing has had severe impacts on major ecosystems such as the Aral Sea in Central Asia, the Indus Delta in Pakistan and the Murray Darling River in Australia.”


However, the same organizations also stressed that the use of tote bags at least helps reduce plastic pollution. Each time a canvas bag is used, one less plastic bag is needed.


Are Plastic Bags Bad for the Environment?


Yes, they are! They are made from raw material like high-density polyethylene, take an average of 1000 years to decompose, end up in landfills and threaten our marine life. They eventually break down into microplastics and pollute our oceans, soils and air.

But (!) they also require few resources for production and transport and therefore have a lower environmental impact than other shopping bags. They generate less carbon emissions, waste, and harmful byproducts than, for example, cotton or paper bags. They are also quite durable and often reusable (for a second round of groceries or as a trash bag).

One of the big problems with plastic bags is what happens to them after we use them. Plastic bags can be recycled, but few people actually do so. And that’s where one of the big problems lies. In most cities, there’s no curbside recycling, so customers have to take the bags to the supermarket to be recycled. And that’s a difficult and annoying task — they fly away, or get stuck between other things, or we’re just too lazy to do it. Quickly into the trash, away with it. Out of sight, out of mind.


So which one should I chose - Tote Bag or Plastic Bag?


As with many things in life, the solution is moderation. Usually, the best bag to use is the one you already have. Reuse and repurpose it as often as possible. Say no to new bags and make sure to use the ones you have. Put one in your car, in your purse, at the entrance of your home, and in your gym bag. Make sure you always have a bag with you so you don’t have to buy a new one.And if you ever need a plastic bag, be sure to use it more than once and recycle it properly. One thing I want to try is taking a different one of my bags each week, it adds variety, it’s fun, and it’s a way to make sure they all get used regularly.


So, what is your take on this? And how many tote bags do you have?

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