A decorative image of a cotton bag against a green background

Photo: Olinda (Shutterstock)

Last week published the New York Times an article by Grace Cook That got half of Twitter to speak of the “cotton dead crisis”. At the heart of this article – and the numerous tweets promoting it – is an alarming statistic: “An organic cotton bag has to be used 20,000 times to offset its overall impact on production.” Of course, this is cause for concern and confusion. Shouldn’t reusable tote bags be better for the environment than plastic?

Yes, and they still are; even in context, this 20,000 reuse number is misleading. The study from which it comes is called “Life cycle analysis of food carrier bags” and was published in February 2018 by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. (You can Read the full study here if you want.) Let’s break it down.

Where does the number of 20,000 come from?

If you want to understand that 20,000 number, knowing a little terminology helps. This type of study is known as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which the authors describe as “a standardized methodology that takes into account the potential environmental impacts related to the resources required to manufacture, use and dispose of the product, as well as the potential emissions that “Can occur during disposal.” This is how they explain their method for calculating reuse figures:

The number of primary reuses for each carrier bag, end-of-life scenario and impact category was calculated under the assumption that reusing a carrier bag X times enabled the corresponding X-times use of the reference LDPE to be avoided [low-density polyethylene] Carrying bag with average properties.

For reference, “primary reuse” means using the bag for its intended purpose, namely transporting food.

Basically, the authors analyzed the environmental impact of different types of shopping bags from the cradle (the production facility) to the grave (the recycling facility or incinerator). They then compared those results directly to data from an average, non-recycled LDPE grocery bag – the kind that could say “thank you” in red letters.

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The number of 20,000 reuses is relative. That doesn’t mean, as the New York Times article says, you have to reuse an organic cotton bag 20,000 times to “offset the overall impact of production.” This means that a bag made from organic cotton has the same environmental impact as 20,000 plastic bags. This also implies that it “saves” 20,000 bags, which the authors straightforwardly state in the executive summary: “[F]or every time a bag is reused, the entire life cycle of the reference bag is avoided. ”

Aside from being misquoted, the 20,000 reuse figure is likely not as realistic for three important reasons. First, they doubled all the numbers for organic cotton bags because they have a smaller volume than the average LDPE bag – but only by around 2 liters. Cut that in half and you’re at 10,000 reuses. Second, this study examined 14 “impact categories”, one of which is ozone depletion. The authors attribute high rates of reuse of cotton containers to this category alone, mainly because of the electricity demand for plant irrigation. Ozone depletion is still a problem, but right now the biggest threat isn’t the ozone-depleting CFCs; it is the CO2 and methane emissions that contribute to climate change. If one only considers the category of the effects of climate change, which is measured in kilograms of CO2 emissions, the reuse number for two carrier bags made of organic cotton drops to 149 or 74.5 for one. That number is right next to the larger, scarier one on every single table.

Finally, and most importantly, waste is not one of the categories of environmental impact. The authors considered the environmental impacts of LDPE bag waste to be negligible and therefore did not take them into account. In fairness, this may be the case in Denmark, where the study was carried out – but for mankind as a whole, single-use plastic waste is anything but negligible.

Plastic bags are bad

Using LDPE bags as the standard is smart because it underscores their biggest flaw: They are exceptionally cheap to make. This is what the manufacturing process looks like noisy an April 2020 blog post from the Columbia University Climate School:

The energy contained in plastic bags comes initially from the extraction of the raw materials required for this, natural gas and crude oil, whose production requires a lot of energy. The raw materials then have to be refined, which requires even more energy. The raw materials are prepared and polymerized in a processing plant in order to produce the plastic building blocks. These tiny granules of polyethylene resin can be mixed with recycled polyethylene chips. They are then transported by truck, train or ship to plants, where an extruder forms the plastic into a thin film under high heat. The film is flattened and then cut into pieces. Next, it is sent to the manufacturers to be bagged. The plastic bags are then packed and shipped to dealers around the world. While polyethylene can be recycled and used to make new plastic bags, most plastic bags are only used once or twice before being incinerated or landfilled. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Americans use and dispose of 100 billion plastic bags each year; and the EPA found that less than five percent is recycled.

The recycling numbers vary; in its unified approach to reducing single-use plastic, quoted the United Nations a study from 2017 It is estimated that around 9% of the plastic is recycled, 12% is incinerated, and a whopping 79% ends up in landfills. But regardless of whether the recycling rates are 5 or 9%, the overall picture is bad. It is a shame that converting fossil fuels into billions of trash upfront is less resource intensive than making cotton or composite containers that can be reused indefinitely. What’s worse is that plastic production is expected to double over the next 20 years, even though more and more people know how bad things already are.

What can you do to help

Please don’t give up and throw away your reusable tote bags – they’re so much better than single-use plastic or even paper bags. Bring them to the store every time. It’s okay to buy more tote bags when you don’t have enough, but do you know what’s even better than buying new ones? Get them for free. Extra tote bags are everywhere these days: free stacks, buy nothing groups, Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and your very own closet. Taking a couple of bags out of someone’s hands gives them a second life and keeps them away from the landfill.

Speaking of landfills: worn-out containers made from natural materials will eventually break if they land there. But it is much better to find a textile recycling service near you. They’re not very common, so you may have to drop your posts off at a fabric shop. It’s still better than throwing it in the trash.

Finally, remember to use your brain when reading media reports on the fossil fuel industry. Powerful corporations around the world are benefiting significantly from the uncontrolled extraction and consumption of fossil fuels, and that is why we are in this bloody mess. Decreasing your individual reliance on fossil fuels is good, and the oil and gas companies know it. They are kind of freaked out to be honest – when consumers stop using their products, their precious profits are not going to rise right. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s about anything else.