Last week, the New York Times published an article by Grace Cook that got half of Twitter talking about “the cotton tote crisis.” At the center of this article—and the multiple tweets promoting it—is an alarming statistic: “An organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact of production.” Naturally, this is cause for concern and confusion. Aren’t reusable totes supposed to be better for the environment than plastic?
Yes, and they still are; even in context, that 20,000 reuse number is misleading. The study it comes from is called “Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags” and it was published by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in February 2018. (You can read the study in full here if you’d like.) Let’s break it down.
Where does the 20,000 figure come from?
If you want to understand that 20,000 number, it helps to know a little terminology. This type of study is called a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which the authors describe as “a standardized methodology that takes into account the potential environmental impacts associated with resources necessary to produce, use and dispose the product, and also the potential emissions that may occur during its disposal.” Here’s how they explain their method for calculating reuse numbers:
The number of primary reuse times for each carrier bag, end-of-life scenario and impact category was calculated assuming that a reuse X times of a carrier bag allowed avoiding the corresponding use X times of the reference LDPE [low-density polyethylene] carrier bag with average characteristics.
For reference, “primary reuse” means using the bag for its intended purpose, which is carrying groceries.
Basically, the authors analyzed the environmental impact of different types of grocery bags from cradle (the manufacturing plant) to grave (the recycling plant or incinerator). Then, they directly compared those findings with the data for an average, non-recycled, LDPE grocery bag—the kind that might say “Thank You” in red letters.
The 20,000 reuses figure is relative. It doesn’t mean, as the New York Times article states, that you have to reuse an organic cotton tote 20,000 times to offset “its overall impact of production.” It means that one organic cotton tote has the same environmental impact as 20,000 plastic bags. This also implies that it “saves” 20,000 bags, which the authors state outright in the executive summary: “[F]or every time a bag is reused it avoids the full life cycle of the reference bag.”
On top of being cited incorrectly, the 20,000 reuses number probably isn’t all that realistic for three big reasons. First, they doubled all the numbers for organic cotton totes because they’re smaller in volume than the average LDPE bag—but only by about 2 liters. Halve that and you’re already down to 10,000 reuses. Second, this study looked at 14 “impact categories,” one of which is ozone depletion. The authors attribute high reuse numbers for cotton totes to this category alone, mostly because of the electricity required for crop irrigation. Ozone depletion is still a concern, but right now, the biggest threat isn’t ozone-wrecking CFCs; it’s the CO2 and methane emissions contributing to climate change. If you only look at the climate change impact category—which is measured in kilograms of CO2 emissions—the reuse number for two organic cotton tote bags drops to 149, or 74.5 for one. This number is right next to the bigger, scarier one in every single table.
Finally, and most importantly, litter is not one of the environmental impact categories. The authors considered the environmental impact of LDPE bag litter negligible, so they didn’t include it. In fairness, this may be true for Denmark, where the study was conducted—but for humanity at large, single-use plastic litter is far from a negligible concern.
Plastic bags are bad
Using LDPE bags as the standard is smart because it emphasizes their biggest flaw: They are extraordinarily cheap to make. Here’s what the manufacturing process looks like, according to an April 2020 blog post from the Columbia University Climate School:
The energy embodied in plastic bags comes initially from the mining of the raw materials needed to make them—natural gas and petroleum—whose extraction requires a lot of energy. The raw materials must then be refined, which requires yet more energy. Once at a processing facility, the raw materials are treated and undergo polymerization to create the building blocks of plastic. These tiny granules of polyethylene resin can be mixed with recycled polyethylene chips. They are then transported by truck, train or ship to facilities where, under high heat, an extruder shapes the plastic into a thin film. The film is flattened, then cut into pieces. Next, it is sent to manufacturers to be made into bags. The plastic bags are then packaged and transported around the world to vendors. While polyethylene can be reprocessed and used to make new plastic bags, most plastic bags are only used once or twice before they end up being incinerated or discarded in landfills. The Wall Street Journal estimated that Americans use and dispose of 100 billion plastic bags each year; and the EPA found that less than five percent are recycled.
Recycling numbers vary; in its unified approach to reducing single-use plastic, the United Nations cites a 2017 study that estimates about 9% of plastic is recycled, 12% is incinerated, and a whopping 79% ends up in landfills. But whether recycling rates are 5% or 9%, the overall picture is bad. It’s very bad that turning fossil fuels into billions of pieces of trash is less resource-intensive up front than manufacturing cotton or composite totes, which can be reused indefinitely. It’s even worse that plastic production is expected to double over the next 20 years, despite an increasing number of people knowing just how bad things are already.
What can you do to help?
Please don’t give up and throw away your reusable totes—they’re so much better than single-use plastic—or even paper—bags. Bring them with you to the store, every time. It’s OK to buy more totes if you don’t have enough, but you know what’s even better than buying new? Getting them for free. Extra tote bags are everywhere these days: Free piles, Buy Nothing groups, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and your very own closet. Taking a few bags off someone’s hands gives them a second life and keeps them out of the landfill.
Speaking of landfills, worn-out totes made of natural materials will eventually break down if that’s where they end up. But it’s much better to find a textile recycling service in your area. They’re not super common, so you may have to drop off your contributions at a fabric store. This is still better than chucking them in the trash.
Finally, remember to use your brain whenever you read media coverage about fossil fuel industries. Powerful corporations around the world profit handsomely from the uncontrolled extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, which is the whole reason we’re in this fucking mess. Decreasing your individual reliance on fossil fuels is good, and the oil and gas companies know it. They’re kind of freaked out, to be honest—if consumers stop using their products, their precious profits will stop going up and to the right. Don’t let them convince you it’s about anything else.