So, You're Not Really Helping The Planet With Your Reusable Tote Bag

Photo: SMXRF/Star Max/Getty Images.
Schlepping around your stuff in a cotton tote bag was, at some point, purely a crunchy, eco-minded way to carry all those food co-op or farmers' market purchases home. In the past few years, it's taken a fashion-y turn, whether it's a logoed tote from a cool-girl brand like Reformation or a fast-fashion name like Uniqlo. American Apparel's have been ubiquitous for years; Outdoor Voices' version has even been likened to perpetually sold-out, $500-plus Mansur Gavriel bucket bags. But, sort-of-ironic fashion clout aside, let's say you're slinging a tote over your shoulder in an effort to be mindful of the environment. Well, we hate to break it you: You're kind of not helping the environment with your bag choice, according to The Atlantic.

You'd have to reuse your favorite cotton tote a whopping 327 times to achieve the same carbon-usage ratio as using a paper bag seven times, per a study by the U.K. Environment Agency (UKEA) from a couple years ago.

Your standard-issue, high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag is responsible for plenty of planetary damage, like getting stuck in trees or being ingested by animals. Yet, counterintuitively, plastic bags have the lightest per-use impact on the Earth of the various bags the UKEA's study examined. Cotton totes actually have "the highest and most severe global-warming potential by far," per The Atlantic.

Besides totes being used as decidedly normcore alternatives to actual handbags, some retailers, like Target and Whole Foods, have incentivized the use of reusable carryalls by offering discounts when customers BYOB(ag). Some states impose a tax on shoppers who require plastic bags with their purchases, and Walmart (in Canada) and IKEA charge for plastic bags, regardless. Plus, some stores have fully swapped disposable shopping bags for reusable ones, as Urban Outfitters did five years ago.

So much for trying to take the seemingly greener tack by opting for a tote. Although, if you can log a couple hundred uses in your favorite tote, whether it bears the Reformation logo or that of your local CSA (yep, that's a thing), you're basically in the clear.

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