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  • Marie

Is the tote bag the new plastic bag?

If you were the same as my parents in France, you surely had at home a plastic bag containing a dozen of other plastic bags squeezed as hard as possible. If you were also as wild as them, you would have one dedicated only to freezing bags only.

When I moved to my own place, I ended up doing the same and trying to find a way to hide the ugly blob of plastic bags I would slowly but surely accumulate with time. I remember also reading about, and trying unsuccesfully to implement, techniques to neetly fold my bags so that they do not take any place and can nicely fit in my kitchen. To be honest I never had the patience to proceed and most ended up in the trash anyway. A trashbag full of plastic bags. Perfect.

The thing is, this time does not seem to be that long ago.

The weirdest thing is, now we do the same but with paper bags instead, and like before, we do not fold them and it turns into a monster paper bag containing others. And the end of the loop is the same: when too many have been collected, compiled and stuck with each other, they end up in the waste bin anyway.

Now, why am I talking about tote bags? Not only do I love them, I also have too many of them and have started already a while ago restraining myself from bying more.

What struck me however is the random increase of reusable bags available on the market.

Where to start? Where to start....

1- the shopping one

Because plastic bags are not really an option anymore, and sustainable practices have been encouraged (or should I say, enforced?) to retailers, more and more are now available in all shapes and shades. The spotlights go today for example to the Migros, Coop or DM ones, that are big and solid enough to manage your Saturday groceries. Their use has also been expanded from shopping to ski-carrying bags lately. We own 3 or 4 of them.

The most perfect example would be otherwise the good-old blue IKEA bag (do not forget to leave the yellow ones at the counter, these are for internal use only).

Did you know that when I looked at Danish citizenship tests, this one was attached to a social question about Danish culture: "What is the second most-known usage of the blue IKEA bag in Copenhagen?" (The answer being: laundry)

Stocks at home: probably 2 or 3 of those somewhere.

2- the branded totebags you get in professional exhibitions

These are the ones I hate most. They are generally of very poor quality, smell awfully artificial and chemical-driven, and the colour has been thought to attract your eyes (the flashier, the uglier, the better). They are thought, conceived and produced to be taken by as many hands as possible, and to contain a few brochures only (or a pen, or a few candies).

Stocks at home: absolute 0

3- Random cotton totebags

These are the ones that I was especially thinking of when working on the content for this article. These bags are generally in cotton, branded or not, and have multiplied over the past few months under my eyes. They have become a fashion movement, an other medium to share a message with more or less meaning.

I am restraining myself to get new ones, so to comfort myself I took a pic of my favourite and most used ones, that have followed me for years: One Kufu market bag that I customized for OUTSIDE THE BOX, one from Healthy Stuff (a present from a friend whose brother manages the shop and café in London), one blue-and-white-stripes-with-a-red-heart for the summer, one from Masdar to remember my good UAE sustainability times, and a stronger one with poppies for bad weather. Each has its advantage and purpose, based on what needs to be transported (with a clear preference for the size and length of the Healthy Stuff one) and the mood of the day.

Why am I bothered, then?

Each year around Christmas time, my dad receives at home a lot of leaflets, cards and other flyers from charities asking for donations. With the letters often (if not always) come freebies, which generally in the past took the shape of Christmas cards, address stamps and other fairly inoffensive items (in the sense that most were in recycled or sustainably-produced paper).

This year he received 3 totebags, at the name and design of the charities, each wrapped in plastic, each generating a heavy chemical / benzene smell. Their quality is poor, and most will end up in the bin without even being opened (maybe some will find the time to unwrap them and discard them in the textile bins...but allow me to doubt it).

Can an increasing number of cotton bags compensate the decrease - and hopefully disparition - of the plastic ones, in terms of use but also in terms of emissions?

Well the answer did not seem that simple to find, especially after I came to this specific statement:

"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." (read here)

The article further discussed the "counterintuitive" results of comparing environmental footprint of various materials:

"The UKEA study calculated an expenditure of a little less than two kilograms of carbon per HDPE bag. For paper bags, seven uses would be needed to achieve the same per-use ratio. Tote bags made from recycled polypropylene plastic require 26, and cotton tote bags require 327 uses."

To summarize, the use of a totebag only makes sense if it is actually used, for quite some time.

No shit, Sherlock, you will be willing to say, but the truth is, unless you always walk around with your bag and use it thoroughly in all occasions (for groceries shopping but also any other consuming action for which you would receive or use a plastic bag), totebags do not seem to make sense. And for each time a totebag is forgotten at home, a paper or plastic bag is bought, used and discarded as replacement.

Resources required to produce a re-usable bag with a proper LCA (life-cycle assessment) perspective in mind, from the production of cotton, the water required in the process, its creation and production, the chemicals associated to colouring/branding, transportation and so on....somehow cancel the so-called environmental benefits embedded in one of the bags' selling point.

Mind-blowing, right?

Writing this article has taken me little more time than planned, and I expected somehow that the tote would win over plastic bag for its long-term usage. I was obviously wrong, which gives me another great reason to a) further love my favourite bags and b) not purchase any new ones.


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