This morning, as I was just sitting in my apartment, quietly scanning the headlines and surrounded by the cumulative 100 tote bags various companies have gifted me through the years, I received a troubling news bulletin. This is not actually sustainable living, the New York Times reports. The existence of so many cotton totes — allegedly the ecofriendly answer to the scourge of single-use plastic bags — creates big problems for our fragile climate situation. Sigh. Predictable.
The Times cites a 2018 study from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, which determined that a person would need to use one single organic cotton tote 20,000 times — or, that one bag every day for 54 years — to balance its environmental cost. Cotton production involves a ridiculous amount of water (and sometimes also, as the Times notes, unethical labor practices) long before you even get to the problem of disposal: Can you compost or recycle your crusty old tote? Maybe! But only if the brand that gave it to you didn’t cover it in PVC-based logos and dyes. And according to the Times, even once the labels get stripped away, transfiguring your stained old canvas into new fabric also eats up energy. So while it’s probably not going to wind up inside the belly of a fish or wedged in a sea turtle’s nostril, the cotton of your 25 totes comes with its own suite of issues, none of which feel all that surprising, but is nonetheless disappointing.
Because ugh, then what is the environmentally responsible way to cart my groceries home, if paper, cotton, and plastics all leave large environmental footprints in their wake? Should I just be … buying only as much as I can carry in my two hands? How is that practical?? It isn’t, and I would say use the totes. If it helps at all, the bad actor here is probably not so much you as it is The Brands. Some companies hand out cotton totes with every purchase, or default to the not very creative tote-as-free-gift-to-subscriber model (apologies to my employer; their latest subscriber bonus is practical and sturdy; a real boat of a tote, it must be said) drowning consumers in cotton carry-alls that conveniently serve as free advertising. Maybe they could stop doing this? And maybe the rest of us could consider not buying so much new crap, given that cotton and plastics and cardboard are all used to make and package the things we own in excess. I love my totes, but … it appears I already have enough to last me multiple lifetimes.