Alternatives to plastic are not automatically virtuous. The tote bag has seen its success soar in recent years. Appreciated for its practicality, it is light, easily transportable, and makes it possible to do without plastic bags when you go shopping. Given the well-known consequences of plastic pollution, particularly for the oceans, the choice is often a quick one. However, over time it has also become a trendy accessory, distributed here and there, during seminars, in certain shops, by companies that put their logo on it… We also tend to buy new ones when we forget the ones we already have and yet we have an errand to run? This may have resulted in a shortening of its useful life.
A more polluting manufacturing process than that of plastic
The problem with tote bags is not only their misuse: their manufacture in itself would be problematic. At least that seemed to be demonstrated in 2018 in a study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency entitled “Life Cycle Assessment of Shopping Bags”. This concerns, in particular, the production of the cotton from which these bags are made, which is very water- and input-intensive. And organic cotton does not seem to be the miracle solution. Because of lower yields, the authors of the study give it an even lower rating. Conversely, the best performers are low-density polyethylene plastic bags, especially those with a rigid handle because they are easier to reuse.
To quantify these differences in impact, the report provides figures. For example, to offset the carbon footprint associated with the manufacture of tote bags, they would have to be reused about … 7,000 times, and up to 20,000 times in the case of organic cotton bags. And although cotton is strong, its resistance to intensive and repeated use over a long period of time, unlike glass, for example, is questionable. In short, the key lies in reuse and sobriety in consumption, whether for plastic or its substitutes.