Are Tote Bags Eco-Friendly?

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tote bag with green background

I’m sure you’re well familiar with tote bags. I have a slew of them sitting in my closet as I type this – some gifted, some bought. We’ve all been told reusable bags are good, disposable bags are bad. In fact, there are several plastic bag bans in effect across the U.S. and many businesses have stopped offering plastic bags outright.

But just how sustainable are tote bags? Well, the answer isn’t as clear cut as you might think. Are tote bags eco-friendly? Yes – but it depends on what they’re made from and how you use them.

It’s downright ironic something designed to help the planet can actually end up harming it. But you’ve heard the expression “too much of a good thing” right? It’s kind of like that.

Many people wind up with tote bags they don’t need or use and it kind of defeats the purpose. Also, brands like to cash in on trends and will often sell reusable tote bags to make you believe they’re helping the earth when they really just want to make a buck (ahem, greenwashing anyone?). 

Let’s analyze which tote bags are eco-friendly and why – because not all tote bags are made equal. 

Are Tote Bags Eco-Friendly? – Table of Contents

  1. Are Tote Bags Unsustainable?
  2. Are Plastic Bags Bad For the Environment?
  3. Are Tote Bags the Solution?
  4. Tote Bag Materials That Are More Sustainable
  5. Tips For Getting the Most Out of Your Eco-Friendly Tote Bag

1. Are Tote Bags Unsustainable?

By definition, no, tote bags aren’t unsustainable. However, cotton tote bags may be less sustainable than just reusing a plastic bag. According to the NY Times, only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year actually ends up in textile depositories. To make matters worse, several dyes used to print logos onto cotton totes are PVC based and not recyclable – in fact, they’re extremely difficult to break down chemically.

Cotton is also a very water intensive crop. Cotton, grown largely for the apparel industry, uses 3 percent of the total amount of water consumed by agriculture. Literally, cotton has dried up rivers in the past from water consumption.

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), it takes more than 20,000 liters (5,283 gallons) of water to produce just one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cotton.

There are three other problems with cotton production according to WWF: Soil erosion and degradation, pollution and water contamination. Cotton is often a monocrop that’s heavily sprayed with fertilizers, pesticides and minerals that contaminate waterways due to runoff. Monoculture is incredibly damaging to soil and pesticide use only leads to further pollution and degradation.

According to a 2018 study from the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, one organic cotton tote needs to be used every day for 54 years (aka 20,000 times) to offset its overall impact of production.

So, in short – cotton tote bags are clearly unsustainable alternatives to single-use plastic bags, unless you plan on using them for a very long time. That doesn’t mean there aren’t alternatives.

2. Are Plastic Bags Bad For the Environment?

Before we all go chucking our tote bags out the window in favor of single-use plastic bags, we should remember they’re not innocent either. 

Single-use plastic bags are bad for the environment too, because they start out as fossil fuels. Crude oil needs to be extracted unsustainably from the earth in order to make plastic bags, as they’re almost never made from recycled plastic, but virgin materials.

The production of plastic bags have a high carbon footprint – from the extraction of the oil, to the polluting factories they’re made in.

Greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere with the production of plastic bags. These factories are often situated in low-income BIPOC communities as well, which leads to a slew of health problems from pollution. Think Cancer Alley in Louisiana. 

Recycling plastic bags is also tricky – they often cannot be recycled with regular recycling, though people often use them to hold their other recyclables like glass and aluminum (which you’re not supposed to do). You can only recycle plastic bags if you have access to a plastic bag and film drop off location.

These bags can also easily rip or get lost, resulting in them ending up in landfills or worse – our environment. They can be ingested by animals who mistake them for food and end up causing a slow painful death of starvation. They can even animals tangled and cause them to lose limbs, or their lives.

Plastic doesn’t break down – it breaks up into tiny microplastics over time. These are still just as deadly and hazardous. They absorb and leech toxins over time. 

In our ocean, chemical leaching from microplastics actually harm vital marine photosynthetic algae: They produce 10 percent of the oxygen that we need to live. Plastic pollution actually interferes with the growth, photosynthesis and oxygen production of Prochlorococcus.

Microplastics have also been found inside all forms of marine life, from the gills of shellfish to the stomachs of whales. A recent study of microplastics in the deep ocean found microplastics in every single filter feeder studied, such as clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.

In short, a plastic bag has a very high carbon life cycle. And if we’re going to combat climate change, we need to get off fossil fuels as soon as possible. That means ending plastic bag production.

3. So What’s the Solution? Are Tote Bags Eco-Friendly?

The best solution I have for you is this: Don’t over-consume.

So many grocery stores and even brands are pushing cotton tote bags down people’s throats nowadays to show “they care about the planet.” The best option is to avoid the hype and just stick to using whatever you already have.

Look through your closet – you’re bound to find a reusable tote of some kind in there. Even if it’s not glamourous, use it. It’s the most eco-friendly option available to you.

Some other sustainable options, when that cannot be done? Invest in a recycled plastic tote bag, organic cotton tote bag, or a hemp tote bag. These are all better choices than a tote bag made from conventional cotton. 

4. Here’s a closer look at which tote bag materials are more sustainable:

  • Using recycled plastic cuts emissions over virgin material by 67% for PET, 71% for HDPE, and 71% for PP. Recycled plastic also reduced total energy consumption by 79% for PET, 88% for HDPE and 88% for PP.  Recycled plastic tote bags are very durable and will last a long time.
  • Organic cotton is also a better choice for a tote bag because the cotton is grown without pesticides and fertilizers that damage soil and cause toxic runoff. There’s less water waste too because 80% of organic cotton is watered using rainfall, which conserves natural resources. Of course, an organic cotton tote bag is also biodegradable.
  • Hemp is also a fantastic choice because it requires very little water to grow, requires a small amount of land to cultivate, and is a densely growing crop meaning harsh chemical herbicides aren’t necessary. It’s best to choose organic hemp whenever possible though, as this will be farmed the most sustainably. Hemp is also biodegradable.

Ultimately, it boils down to material and reducing overconsumption. You don’t need 40 tote bags – even if all of them are made from sustainable materials. Use what you have and you’ll find your impact is a much more positive one.

5. Tips for getting the most out of an eco-friendly tote bag?

My first tip? Make sure to wash your bags! Especially if you’re using them a lot. They can get surprisingly dirty fast – especially if you’re using them to carry produce like I do.

You can wash them in your sink with some hit water and castile soap. Let them soak for at least ten minutes before letting them hang dry. If they’re really dirty, you might want to give them a double wash.

Also, sometimes you don’t need a bag. If you’re purchase is small or minimal, consider opting out of a bag entirely and just carrying it to your car or putting it in your personal bag. I do this a lot when I’m in a pinch! 

It’s important to remember to bring your bags with you so they don’t gather dust in your closet somewhere. I recommend sticking some in your car, leaving some on your counter, or hanging them near the front door. You want them somewhere easy to access and grab, ideally in open sight. If you have a bag you bring everywhere, always carry one inside it.

Some tote bags even come with a pouch and a keychain, which you can attach to your keys. This is perfect for those people who always forget their bags – because you’re much less likely to forget your keys!

Last but not least, give away bags you find yourself no longer using. If you see you’re only reaching for 4 to 5 bags, and don’t need the other 5 you bought on a whim, make note of that. Those would probably be better off in a friend or family’s home getting used than sitting in your house gathering dust. So if you know someone who doesn’t have a reusable bag, give it to them!

What’s your take? Do you think tote bags are eco-friendly? Do you use them? Let us know in the comments below!

Bio: Ariana Palmieri is the founder of Greenify-Me, a blog dedicated to zero waste living and sustainability. Her work has been featured on Going Zero Waste, Mother Earth Living, Green Matters and several other publications. Get her free e-book “10 Ways to Reduce Trash” by signing up to her newsletter and learn how to reduce your waste today.

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