Are our cotton tote bags really doing more harm than good?

By Emily Chan
Tote Bag Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

One study suggests that an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its environmental impact

We all know to avoid single-use plastic carrier bags, but what about our cotton tote bags? Well, a recent piece by the New York Times has highlighted that they might not be as eco-friendly as you think – particularly if you have dozens lying around the house.


A stand-out statistic for you to ponder: an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its environmental impact, according to a 2018 study in Denmark, due to large amounts of energy and water needed to produce it, and its impact on the ozone layer. That’s the equivalent of using just one tote bag every day for 54 years. Cotton bags are also difficult to recycle, further reducing their environmental credentials.

But what does this mean for those of us who have been diligently using our tote bags at the supermarket instead of plastic? “Reusable options are better but only if you do reuse them,” Pauline Deutz, a professor at the University of Hull and expert in the circular economy, tells Vogue US. “Find a good quality, durable bag and keep using it for years.”

Are tote bags good for the environment

Photo: Getty Images

Considering that only six per cent of flexible plastic is currently recycled in the UK, it’s worth remembering the damaging impact single-use carrier bags have on the world’s oceans. “The main reason to choose other options than single-use plastic bags is to reduce littering and subsequent problems with microplastics in the oceans,” says Tomas Ekvall, adjunct professor at Chalmers University of Technology and author of a UN Environment report on single-use plastic bags. “When it comes to other environmental impacts, the plastic bag is surprisingly competitive.”

Ekvall emphasises, however, that the 20,000 uses figure quoted in the 2018 study refers to all the environmental impacts of producing an organic cotton cote bag. “It is the number of times [it] must be used to be environmentally superior or equal in all impact categories,” he explains. “A cotton bag contributes 20,000 times more to ozone depletion, compared to a single-use plastic bag. However, ozone depletion is typically not the focus of life cycle assessments.”

Another study, conducted by the Environmental Agency in 2011, suggests that you’d have to use a cotton bag 131 times to make it a better choice than a plastic carrier bag when thinking just about its impact on climate change – a much more achievable figure if you have a few that you continuously use.

The main takeaway? Reuse your tote bags as much as possible, and hold off accumulating more than you need. “The environmentally-best option is to use the bag you have at home – whether cotton, paper or plastic – rather than getting a new one,” Ekvall concludes.

Originally published on British Vogue