Updated: Oct 21, 2020
It is a no brainer to claim that reusable grocery bags cut down on wasteful plastic. According to a study by Science 8 millions metric tons get dumped in the ocean every year, so after bans of disposable items made of plastic
So came the glorification of the tote bag on any shops. But when you lightheartedly go to the grocery store feeling like an environmental winner doing the switch for a green action, have you ever wondered how environmentally friendly the cotton tote actually is ?
Life Cycle Assessments
On an Life Cycle Assessment point of view, meaning from the extraction of the raw materials, manufacturing, to their final use and disposal, the reusable tote bags benefits are mitigated according to the Report of the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark in 2018.
The aim of the study was to identify which grocery bag had the best environmental performance with the recommended number of reuse and the best disposal option.
The study looked at 7 different types of shopping bags, research through all of their life cycles then assess how each bag scores across several environmental indicators, such as climate change, ozone, toxicity, and resource depletion.
Standard cotton Tote bag for example would have to be reused 50 times (150 for organic cotton) to match their plastic counterparts on the climate change indicator and 7100 times (20 000 for organic cotton) on all indicators.
"Organic cotton provides environmentally preferable production conditions by avoiding the use of fertilisers and pesticides, but with a lower yield. The lower production yield translates in overall higher environmental impacts connected to its production, and to a higher required number of reuse times in order to “amortise” its environmental production costs."
Conscious Behaviour to be Improved
The so called eco solutions get grimy with time and going to your favourite grocery store may actually then contaminate the food supply. Adding to this surveys suggest that people forget their reusable bag 40% of time on their way to a grocery trips and use them 15 times only on average.
So run your reusable bags through the washer to 60 degrees regularly to remove any lingering food bacteria, turning them inside out before you toss them in and create a nudge not to forget them at home.
If you do have some light plastic bags at home, the best option for reuse is to dispose them as a waste bin bag rather than directly recycling.
So Are We Really Making a Change?
As surprising as it may be, we have to go with the Yes and No answer. There is no absolute winner and ideal eco-solution so far. In the end, it is up to what you care the most about on the environmental scheme.
"You have to Decide what environmental impacts you are most interested in mitigating"
- David Tyler, professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Oregon
For plastic waste and to relieve oceans, going for a tote bag would be the right choice. To tackle other environmental issues: make sure to wash it, go for organic cotton to minimise its environmental impact (no potentially toxic pesticides, no use of synthetic fertilisers) and make sure you use it the hell out of it. Another great alternative is to repurpose what you already have at home by upcycling an old (but clean) t-shirt into a bag.
In your inner Struggle, be relieved
So it does feel frustrating to think we found a great solution to tackle plastic bags only to realise that with today's sourcing, manufacturing and transportation process this alternative does not bring the holy green grail for shopping.
However to fight against climate change and make an environmental difference, those bags don't weight such a big impact and it matters actually more what groceries with their associated packaging you put inside and how you get to that grocery store.
Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark : https://www2.mst.dk/udgiv/publications/2018/02/978-87-93614-73-4.pdf