Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment?

Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment? By Noah Dillon.

For at least a few decades, Americans have been drilled in the superiority of tote bags. Reusable bags are good, we’re told, because they’re friendly for the environment. Disposable bags, on the other hand, are dangerous. …

But canvas bags might actually be worse for the environment than the plastic ones they are meant to replace. In 2008, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) published a study of resource expenditures for various bags: paper, plastic, canvas, and recycled-polypropylene tote bags.

Surprisingly, the authors found that in typical patterns of use and disposal, consumers seeking to minimize pollution and carbon emissions should use plastic grocery bags and then reuse those bags at least once — as trash-can liners or for other secondary tasks.

Conventional plastic bags made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE, the plastic sacks found at grocery stores) had the smallest per-use environmental impact of all those tested. Cotton tote bags, by contrast, exhibited the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far since they require more resources to produce and distribute.

Such results feel deeply counterintuitive. HDPE bags seem foreign, artificial. They lodge in trees, catch in the esophagi of animals, fester in landfills, clot cities, and are reduced to small particles floating in ocean gyres — for hundreds of years into the future. But even though they don’t easily degrade, they require very few resources to manufacture and transport. They produce less carbon, waste, and byproducts than cotton or paper bags. They’re recyclable. They’re cheap.

But plastic bags signal non-virtue. The virtue signalers not only don’t want to be seen with them, but they signal even more virtue by not letting other people use them either.