This Is Plastics: Reusable Options Not as Sustainable as They Seem


Reusable Options Not as Sustainable as They Seem

While cotton bags may have made sustainability “cool,” they ushered in an era of misinformation about which materials are actually most sustainable. 


Today, reusable cotton bags are seen as the hallmark of everyday sustainability. Most frequently used for grocery shopping, these bags often showcase their user’s preferred sports team, political leanings, and literary interests. But in 2007, the “it” bag that launched the cotton bag era was one designed by Anya Hindmarch. Her cotton bag, emblazoned with the words, “I am not a plastic bag,” was so in demand that it sold out in one day and could only be purchased on eBay at a significant markup thereafter. While this bag may have made sustainability “cool,” it actually ushered in an era of misinformation regarding which bag is the most sustainable option for everyday carries. 

Unfortunately, cotton totes promoted as the “sustainable” option are anything but. According to a study from Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, reusable options, including the popular cotton tote, are not as environmentally friendly as claimed. Rather, the study finds that plastic is the most environmentally beneficial material because it uses the fewest resources during manufacture, reduces water consumption, and produces fewer emissions. A compilation of studies from National Geographic also pointed towards plastic bags as the sustainable option because they reduce carbon emissions, waste and the reliance on harmful chemicals.

Plastic bags are the most environmentally friendly option

Compared to heavier materials like cotton, the production and manufacture of plastic and plastic products is far more resource efficient. The production of cotton, for example, is highly water intensive, making it far less sustainable than plastic. According to a recent New York Times piece, cotton farming is actually linked to drying rivers and burdensome land use. During manufacture, cotton requires the heavy use of chemicals and is extremely energy intensive, further contributing to its high environmental footprint. Organic cotton is not an advanced solution either. Because of its low use of pesticides, the cotton yields are 30 percent less than conventional cotton and require 30 percent more water and land use, making organic cotton bags worse for the environment than conventional cotton. 

Alternatively, plastic requires fewer inputs, less water and less energy, making it the best option for everyday use, according to a life cycle assessment, which maps the environmental impact of products from sourcing to end-of-life management. The Environmental Justice Foundation has also raised concerns about the use of pesticides in cotton farming, labeling it “the dirtiest crop” because of its impact on workers, groundwater and air quality around farms. According to the research, pesticide use is so significant that it has left farmers with chronic illnesses and in some cases, fatalities. 

A cotton bag must be used at least 7,100 times for it to outweigh its life cycle environmental footprint. Organic cotton bags are even worse – they must be used 20,000 times, which equates to daily usage for 54 years. Meanwhile, plastics’ footprint pales in comparison, and most single-use plastic bags are used more than their intended single-use to line small trash bins and pick up after pets. Plastics’ superiority as the sustainable choice compared to alternative materials is clear.

All Plastics are Recyclables

Although cotton has been heralded as a more sustainable option, the reliance on harmful chemicals and water depleting manufacturing processes suggests otherwise. Another important differentiator between plastics and cotton: all plastics are recyclable. Many grocery stores even have drop off locations to make it easier for consumers to reuse and recycle, with 90 percent of people living in the United States having access to plastic film recycling. Plastic bags, wraps and films can be recycled and made into plastic materials that have similar characteristics to those made with virgin materials, therein reducing the environmental footprint even more. Plastic bags can also leverage advanced recycling technologies to extend their life by using chemicals or heat to break down polymers into their original compounds. These polymers can then be used infinitely to create new products, keeping all plastics inside the economy and out of the environment. 

Comparatively, cotton bags are hard to recycle, and the ever-increasing use of logos on bags makes them even harder to recycle or repurpose. Only 15% of the 30 million tons of cotton produced each year makes its way back to textile depositories, due in large part to a lack of infrastructure. 

Even further, according to Maxine Bedat, the director of the New Standard Institute, which focuses on textile sustainability, the biggest shortcoming in textile recycling is that the process of textile recycling – like textile manufacturing – is an extremely energy intensive process, making the end product even dirtier. Meanwhile, plastics can be easily recycled, with minimal energy usage or pollution. 


Studies prove plastic has the least environmental impact compared to its packaging counterparts. Improvements and expansion in recycling are also widening the opportunities for the use of recycled plastic, making its environmental impact even less than other materials, which have a low reuse or recycle rate. As resources like land and water become scarce and energy consumption increases, using materials that can be as functional as plastic will become an essential part of sustainability strategies and environmental stewardship. Sustainability goals can only be met with fact-based studies and science, with research pointing to the vast benefits plastics provide. 

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