Who doesn’t have a bag full of bags? Ours contains 23 plastic grocery bags, three big plastic shopper bags, a plastic cooling bag, two reusable nylon bags, three see-through plastic bags, and 17 cotton bags. It turns out that the six organic cotton bags we use daily are the main contributors to the environmental footprint (CO2 and water usage) of our bag of bags. This made us ask ourselves how sustainable our choice really was. Pretty much every article you come across recommends swapping plastic bags for cotton tote bags to reduce your environmental impact. This seems like good advice, but it turns out that it may not be so simple.
According to a Danish lifecycle analysis, organic cotton bags require 149 uses every time the same plastic bag is used to provide the same environmental performance (CO2 and water usage only) as the plastic ones. When other indicators such as human toxicity, terrestrial and marine acidification & eutrophication, and resource depletion are also taken into the equation, organic cotton bags come out way worse. This is mainly caused by the high impact of cotton on freshwater eutrophication. Considering this, organic cotton bags require up to 3800 uses every time a plastic bag is used.
But… all in perspective. An average 225 grams steak has a 22x higher impact on freshwater eutrophication than a single organic cotton bag. That steak only lasts 30 minutes tops; that carrier can last many years. If you had asked me, I would have preferred to skip a steak once to compensate for 22 cotton bags that will last a lifetime, are compostable and do not choke aquatic life when they end up in marine environments.
There is a lot more to tell about this subject – you can read all about it in our latest article: Paper, plastic or cotton: which carrier bag is the least harmful?. Let us know what you think! @somewhatgreener