Cotton is Rotten for the Environment | Citizens Against Government Waste

Cotton is Rotten for the Environment

The WasteWatcher

Plastic shopping bags have over the past several years have become an unnecessary pariah.  In 2014, California was the first state to enact legislation that banned the sale of single-use plastic bags at large retail stores and recyclable bags required a 10-cent minimum charge.  The intent was to reduce the pervasiveness of plastic bags, lessen the damage the bags were causing to the environment, lower their impact on waste management, and encourage the use of reusable bags, like cotton totes. 

According to a February 2021 National Conference of State Legislatures report, eight states have banned single-use plastic bags: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont.  Big cities, from Boston to Seattle, have banned plastic bags, while dozens of smaller cities and counties have banned them unless retail stores provide them for a fee or a recycling bin.

But as usually happens with government actions that are “well-intended,” policies, there is often an unequal reaction that causes a bigger problem and, in this case, it is the prevalence of reusable cotton tote bags.  The New York Times reporter Grace Cook wrote about this quandary in her August 24 column, “The Cotton Tote Crisis,” saying, “you can get cotton bags pretty much everywhere. How did an environmental solution become part of the problem?”

Cook pointed out that retailers who want to provide convenience for their customers, advertise their products, and prove they are environmentally conscientious, have been producing mountains of cotton bags.  She suggested that British designer Anya Hindmarch made reusable cotton bags popular.  In 2007, Hindmarch created the “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” cotton tote that were sold in British grocery stores for about £5 or $10.00.  The bag encouraged patrons to stop using single-use plastic bags and the initiative went viral across the world.  For example, The New Yorker magazine’s cream and black tote bag turned into a status symbol and more than 2 million subscribers have received one as a gift since 2014.  Many other businesses and institutions also offer trademarked or advertising-intensive cotton totes.  Fashionable stores luxuriously wrap shoes and handbags in protective cotton coverings to add a little panache.

Cook’s article references a February 2018 Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark study entitled, “Life Cycle Assessment of Grocery Carrier Bags,” that studied the environmental impact of a variety of tote bags used in Danish grocery and retail stores, from plastics to organic cotton.  The goal of the study, commissioned by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency, was to identify the grocery carrier bag with the best environmental performance.  The study also factored in the reuse of the bag, either as its primary purpose or in another role, like a trash can liner, and how its reuse offset the environmental cost in producing it.

The study demonstrated that cotton bags are incredibly unfriendly to the environment.  A conventional cotton bag needs to be used 7,100 times, or every day for 19.5 years, before it offsets the environmental impact of its production.  Considering the tens of millions of people who have one or more cotton tote bags in their possession, it would take decades if not a century before the current number of cotton totes environmentally “pay” for themselves.

Cook interviewed University of Maine environmental science professor Travis Wagner, who said one of the reasons cotton is not environmentally friendly is because it is water intensive.  Production of the bags is associated with slave labor in China, which produces 20 percent of the world’s cotton and produces most western fashion brands.  Furthermore, China is not known for its environmental stewardship.

It is also very difficult to dispose of a cotton tote bag in an environmentally correct way.  They cannot be composted, and only 15 percent of the 30 million tons of cotton produced every year finds its way to textile depositories.  If a cotton tote should arrive at a treatment plant, many of the dyes used on the bag are PVC-based and not recyclable.  Any printed logo or pattern must be cut out, thus reducing overall cotton recycling by as much as 15 percent.

Even if the old cotton is used to make a new product, it takes almost as much energy as it did to produce it in the first place.  Ellen MacArthur Foundation Project Manager Laura Balmond for the Make Fashion Circular Campaign mentioned in the article that cotton tote bags are “a really good example of unintended consequences of people trying to make positive choices, and not understanding the full landscape.”

Cook wrote that cotton totes are not necessarily worse than plastic bags, but they should probably not be compared either.  For example, pesticides can be used on cotton – if not organically grown – and the crops have been known to dry up rivers.  On the other hand, Cook said, “lightweight plastic bags use greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels, never biodegrade and clog up the oceans.”  Companies are beginning to look at the cotton conundrum and contemplating alternative textiles, like hemp or recycled water bottles, to manufacture totes.  Cook concluded that companies should consider eliminating fancy cotton bags for their products.

What was not mentioned in the NY Times column was that the Danish study focused on finding the bags with the less environmental impact.  It was found that the carrier bags that provide the lowest environmental impact are LDPE plastic, or low-density polyethylene carrier bags.  These bags can be directly reused for shopping and should be reused to improve its life cycle assessment.  When finished with it, the researchers suggest using it as a wastebasket liner.

The worst overall environmental impact is caused by organic cotton bags.  The Danish study considered the number of reuses that must be undertaken to offset its overall impact in production.  An organic tote requires it to be used 20,000 times, which equals to using it daily for 54 years.  The Danish researchers’ recommendations are to either use a cotton bag as many times as possible, but to dispose of it, incineration is the best method.

The Danish study is not the only one that has come to the same conclusion that certain plastic bags have a much lower environmental impact compared to cotton totes.  Others include a December 2017 Recyc-Québec study, “Environmental and Economic Highlights of the Results of the Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bag” and a February 2011 United Kingdom study, “Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags” that high-density polyethlylene (HDPE) bags are more environmentally friendly than cotton totes or other resusable bags.

A December 2016 Toronto study, “Using Nudges to Reduce Waste?  The Case of Toronto’s Plastic Bag Levy,” showed “nudging” by charging a small levy worked well in encouraging people who already used reusable bags to increase their use but was not as effective with infrequent users.  In addition, those with a high socio-economic status were more responsive to use reusable bags compared to those in a lower economic class.

Banning plastic bags is another example of government overreach.  Doing so has caused job losses in the plastic industry; raised costs for customers, especially those with low incomes; failed to substantially reduce waste; and, created significant environmental problems.  Instead of banning plastic bags, governments should work with manufacturers to educate consumers on how to lessen the environmental impact by reusing and recycling plastic bags, and that it is not necessary to get a bag at all for every purchase, like six-packs of drinks and plastic water and milk containers.

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