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By Hope Campbell/Aug. 25, 2021 12:12 pm EDT

If there was anything that signals “I’m all about saving the planet,” nothing — or no one — speaks more loudly than a cotton tote. And why wouldn’t it be? Unlike its dreaded alternative, the plastic bag, cotton totes are made out of a biodegradable material. They aren’t clogging our oceans, neither are they breaking down into micro-versions of itself to be accidentally ingested by sea creatures. 

Yet, environmentalists are sounding the alarm on these ubiquitous cotton totes because they may not be as good for our beleaguered environment as it may seem. According to Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, a cotton tote (organic) needs to be used 20,000 times — or about 54 years, every day —  before it can offset its carbon footprint (via The New York Times), and there are reasons for this. The bag’s material itself — cotton — may biodegradable, but its also a very thirsty plant; one plant needs about 10 gallons of water for it to live up to its potential, and a field could need up to 30 inches of water for a season that lasts 180 days (via Farm and Animals). And then there’s the composting issue: as fashion and sustainability expert Maxine Bedat points out to the New York Times, she hasn’t yet found a municipal compost that will take textiles; and even if they did, the dyes used to print logos on branded totes are not recyclable because they are made with PVC and are tough to break down.

Cotton totes aren't as environmentally friendly as they look

But wait, there’s more. Environmentalists say comparing and contrasting the virtues of a plastic bag vs a cotton one is a tough thing to do, because they point to the fact that there’s more to conservation than considering an end product on its own. There is the impact the manufacture of plastic versus cotton might have on the environment; there is how much ozone the processes take up; how much water is used, and how much air pollution is generated (via Quartz). When all these are taken into consideration, Danish officials said back in 2018 that LDPE — or classic plastic bags — need only be reused once before its net impact on the environment zeroes out. This means that once you leave a store with your plastic bag, as long as you use that bag one more time, you’re good. 

The conundrum involving cotton totes has been such that Laura Balmond of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation holds up the bag as “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape” (via The New York Times). 

Not disposing of your cotton totes is one solution to this dilemma

Experts may have a tough time convincing cotton tote advocates that the solution of leaving plastic bags behind won’t be enough to save the world, especially since more than a few voices on social that aren’t buying the argument that plastic bags can be a wiser, more eco friendly choice. As this social media user points out: “No doubt that hemp or other eco-fabrics are environmentally better than most cotton (there is low water/no pesticide cotton), but that wasn’t the point of the [New York Times] article. Any tote, even one made of polyester, is better than using disposable plastic bags for a variety of reasons.”  

The solution, experts say, is to hang on to your cotton totes and reuse them, without trying to get rid of them. If they aren’t disposed of, you aren’t do the world any harm (via The Atlantic), and it’s a solution armchair environmentalists can get behind. As one social media user put it: “I agree! Cotton is water and energy intensive to produce but it is a very resistant material and so the answer is to use and re-use the cotton and tote bags you already possess — with proper care they last a lifetime!”

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