Are reusable cotton tote bags really good for the environment?

A woman holding a reusable grocery shopping bag in a supermarket. (PHOTO: Getty)
A woman holding a reusable grocery shopping bag in a supermarket. (PHOTO: Getty)

This article is part of the Yahoo series ‘Sustainability: Fact/Myth’

Long hailed by brands as the eco-friendly solution to single-use plastic bags, cotton totes have ironically become part of the problem.

According to a 2020 study by Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, reusing a cotton bag 50 times had over 10 times the global warming potential compared to reusable plastic bags that were reused the same number of times.

That means a single cotton tote has to be used hundreds of times before they are considered a more eco-friendly alternative over single-use or reusable plastic bags.

Bigger environmental footprint

The study also showed that cotton totes have relatively bigger environmental footprints compared to their plastic counterparts because of the eco-toxicity potential in their production.

According to a 2018 study by Danish authorities, a single organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times – or used daily for 54 years — to offset its overall impact of production.

Cotton production is resource-intensive – staggeringly large amounts of water is needed to grow the fibres. Some 10,000 to 20,000 litres are required to produce just 1kg of cotton, which is the rough equivalent of one T-shirt and a pair of jeans.

It is also associated with allegations of forced labour in Xinjiang, China, which produces 20 per cent of the global cotton supply and supplies most Western fashion brands.

Even recycling a cotton tote is not as environmentally friendly as perceived.

Experts have said that even if these bags are sent for recycling, logos or messages have to be cut out of the cloth, wasting an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of cotton received by a single recycling firm. Most dyes used to print designs on the cotton totes are PVC-based, therefore not biodegradable and unrecyclable.

What can you do?

Think twice the next time you accept the offer of a free tote by brands – not every product needs to be bagged.

By all means, accept a free tote if you need it, but make sure you use it as often as possible.