Cotton Tote Bags Aren't The Eco-Friendly Solution We Thought They Were

by Christina Marfice
Photo taken in Thai Mueang, Thailand

Your cotton tote bag collection — especially if it’s made of organic cotton — might be even worse for the planet than plastic bags

These days, everyone has a closet with a shelf, a box, or a basket that’s stuffed full of cotton tote bags. First, they were sold in grocery store checkout aisles as an alternative to wasteful, single-use paper and plastic bags. Then they became a must-have accessory, printed with novelty slogans or logos from our favorite stores and brands. Now, they’re a freebie at basically every event you ever attend — grab your goodie bag, inside a branded cotton tote — on your way out the door. So isn’t it a shock to learn that these seemingly eco-friendly, practically infinitely reusable bags aren’t the environmental solution we’ve been told they are?

An investigation in the New York Times has revealed that cotton bags come with their own set of environmental challenges — and especially if they’re made out of organic cotton. A 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark showed that a single organic cotton bag would need to be used 20,000 times to fully offset the overall environmental impact of producing it. That means, to zero out your impact on the Earth, you would need to use each of your organic cotton totes every day for 54 years. If you’re like me and you have about 80 of them collected as gifts and event freebies over the years, that multiplication can quickly get scary.

“Cotton is so water intensive,” Travis Wagner, an environmental science professor at the University of Maine, told the Times. Cotton is also one of those crops that’s closely associated with forced labor around the world — 20 percent of the global cotton supply comes from Xinjiang, China, where it is largely farmed by enslaved Uyghur Muslims.

And then there’s the question of what to do with a tote you don’t want to use anymore. While paper and plastic bags can both sometimes be recycled (depending on where you live and whether you have access to plastic film recycling), cotton isn’t quite so straightforward. Theoretically, it should be compostable, but most municipal compost centers refuse to accept textiles. Plus, there’s the printing — tote bags are generally decorated with PVC-based ink, which isn’t recyclable or compostable, and thus needs to be cut out of the bag before it can treated or reused.

Does this mean you should stop using cotton tote bags? Well, not necessarily. As Laura Balmond, a project manager for the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular campaign, put it, this is “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape.” What people should stop doing is collecting more cotton bags than they need. Stick with that shelf or box full you already have, use them whenever possible, and consider giving them away as gifts if you have more than you need, rather than throwing them away.