It could just be that you don’t need to feel guilty after all. Recent research from the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) reveals that a cotton eco-friendly bag would need to be used 131 times before it can officially be classified as environmentally friendly.
Can this really be true? Have we been misled into thinking cotton bags are good for the environment?
Plastic bag is the most environmentally friendly option?
The UK Environment Agency analyzed the environmental impact of seven reusable shopping bags that are widely available in supermarkets. They assessed the full life cycle of the bags, from manufacturing through to decomposition. Some of the processes involved were challenging to assess; for example, the environmental impact that results from consumers “transporting” bags from the supermarkets to home. As such, these aspects were not taken into consideration in the study.
The extent to which the bags were considered to be environmentally friendly was determined according to the level of carbon that was emitted during the production process.
What is of interest in this study is that the bag that is conventionally assumed to be the most harmful for the environment, that produced from high-density polyethylene (HDP), aka the plastic bag, was found to actually be the most environmentally friendly option.
The findings of the study revealed that bags that are fabricated from alternative materials need to be used a large number of times before the environmental impact can be reduced to the same level as single-use plastic bags. Of the seven bags there were tested, the cotton bags were the least environmentally friendly, needing to be used up to 131 times before the environmental harm was negated. Non-woven bags needed to be reused at least 11 times, while paper bags needed to be reused 3 times.
What exactly is it about reusable bags that is causing environmental harm?
The findings of the UK Environment Agency research revealed that the most expensive aspect of a shopping bag concerned the material from which it was fabricated. In the case of cotton tote bags, the most expensive resource is cotton. The process by which cotton is produced involves planting and growing cotton seeds. This involves the use of a lot of water and fertilizers. Furthermore, a lot of energy is consumed as the yarn is drawn-out. As such, the production of cotton has a significantly higher impact on the environment than plastic bags, which are not as environmentally unfriendly to produce.
Should we ditch reusable bags for good?
No! The situation is slightly more complicated than that.
One of the most significant issues concerned with the use of plastic bags is that they often end up being thrown away or washed into the sea. As plastic takes an extremely long time to degrade, their disposal can cause a large amount of damage to the ecological system.
What bag should we use then?
Sadly, the UK Environment Agency did not present a definitive answer to this question. The primary recommendation, however, was that, regardless of what bag you choose, you should ensure that you reuse it as many times as you can. It is only through repeated use of a bag over a long-term basis that the environmental impact of its production can be offset.
The New Taipei City Government recently launched an initiative entitled the “reBAG” project, which encourages members of the public to donate paper and plastic bags that they are not using to the Environmental Protection Administration (EPA). The Bureau subsequently distributes the donated bags to merchant providers for them to provide to customers. This can reduce the production of high levels of plastic bags while also ensuring that the existing reusable bags can be reused as many times as possible.
Before buying, ask yourself, “Do I really NEED it or just WANT it?”
Next time you’re out shopping and the cashier asks you if you need a bag, ask yourself if you really do need one. After all, the most environmentally friendly option is not using a bag at all!
If you really do need a shopping bag, choose a stylish option that you love. That way, you are much more likely to reuse it regularly.
The key takeaway here is that you should be concerned about how often you use your shopping bags, not what shopping bags you actually use.
The best way to protect the environment is to change your mindset, not your bags.
Ecologically speaking, the best practice for cotton tote bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all.