Are totes totally environmentally friendly?

Are totes totally environmentally friendly?

Plastic bags choking themselves around turtle necks, suffocating waterways, and making islands of garbage as large as countries in the ocean– these are the images that might compel us to purchase that $2 tote instead of taking another disposable bag at the checkout. For a small cost, we supposedly are able to dispel some of our guilt and feel as if we are doing our bit for the environment.


However, is the grass truly greener in a world where plastic bags have been supplanted by tote bags, or do we just have a mistaken impression that we’re doing the right thing?


It’s almost obvious – reuse a tote bag a few times and voila, you’ve just saved a couple of turtles. However, in 2011, the UK Environment Agency (UKEA) showed that the situation is a little more complicated than that. The UKEA analysed the carbon footprint of each bag available in UK supermarkets over their entire life cycle, from extraction and production to the end-of-life stage where bags are either collected, sent to landfill, incinerated or recycled.[1]


However, the scope of the UKEA’s report does not include littering of plastic bags nor the adverse impacts of degradable polymers in the recycling stream. While there is difficulty in accurately assessing this, we do know that plastic bags are the second most collected during coastal clean-ups (although this may be due to the ease of collecting them rather than their relative ubiquity). Accounting for only an estimated 1% of litter, they pose a threat to animals who choke on them or die slowly from being unable to digest other foods.[2]


Indeed, according to the United Nations Environment Program, plastics in aggregate (not just plastic bags) that find their way into oceans cost approximately AU$17.3 billion annually in environmental damage to marine ecosystems.[3] These figures can not be directly compared to the UKEA figures and fail to give us a definitive picture of whether plastic or reusable totes are preferable, but nevertheless illustrate that their impacts are not so easy to compare. Pushing for more tote bags instead of plastic may not be the chosen panacea to save the planet, but rather a trade-off between savings seabirds and turtles, at the risk of putting further pressure on the natural resources we use to produce tote bags.


Indeed, only through reusing a cotton tote bag 131 times would we achieve the same carbon footprint as using a non-biodegradable plastic bag only once.[4]


These rates of reuse required to ‘pay off’ the environmental cost of a tote bag show us there may fundamentally exist environmental benefits to this trend and that the bulk of the problem likely lies not with the tote itself but rather, our culture of ‘buying and then quickly disposing’. We have to reuse totes enough to reap their benefits, otherwise we are simply trading one environmental problem for another.


Current usage trends of plastic bags and tote bags suggest we are not reusing totes enough to obtain the benefits. Indeed, an anecdotal observation from Urban Outfitters designer Dmitri Siegel’s indicated that he owned 23 tote bags – some bought, some handed out for promotional purposes by various organisations – that were largely unused.[5]


Macro-level trends also reflect this – the global tote bag market is expected to grow at a significant pace from 2017 to 2024, yet the plastic bag and pouch industry is valued at $18.9 billion in 2016 and forecasted to also grow to $22.2 billion by 2020, rather than declining.[6][7] These global trends signify that even though there has been rising demand for tote bags, some of which is likely driven by growing environmental awareness, the usage of tote bags has failed to offset consumption of plastic bags.[8]


The story of tote bags hauntingly echoes that of plastic bags. Plastic is cheap and easy to produce and incurs a small environmental cost to produce. They may not be inherently terrible, but because they can be sold at low prices, and often given away for free, they become so ubiquitous that they begin to impose risks to wildlife and the environment. Similarly, tote bags are relatively cheap and easy to produce. They may not be inherently terrible but because they can be sold at low prices, they become so ubiquitous that the environmental cost of their production begins to accumulate to dangerous levels.


For those concerned with the risk of threat to aquatic and marine life, using tote bags can be an effective way of reducing the impact of pollution. However, make no mistake – tote bags can also be environmentally damaging in their own way. Picking up that extra tote bag because you left your one at home? It may be better to stick with plastic instead.


Further reading

[1] [4] UK Environment Agency. (2011). Life cycle assessment of supermarket carrier bags: a review of the bags available in 2006. Retrieved from

[2] Northern Territory Environment Protection Authority. (n.d) Environmental Impacts. Retrieved from

[3] UNEP. (2014). Valuing Plastics: The Business Case for Measuring, Managing and Disclosing Plastic Use in the Consumer Goods Industry. Retrieved from

[5] Dillon, N. (2016, Sep 2). Are Tote Bags Really Good for the Environment? Retrieved from

[6] Research Nester. (2018). Tote bags market. Retrieved from 

[7] BCC Research. (2018). Global Plastics Bag and Pouch Market to Grow 4.1% Annually Through 2020Retrieved from 

[8] Research Nester. (2018). Tote bags market. Retrieved from

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