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Commentary: A tote bag sounds like the eco-friendly option – but it isn’t always

The intention to move away from single-use plastic bags was a good one but the rise of the cotton tote bag has created other problems, says an environmental activist.

Commentary: A tote bag sounds like the eco-friendly option – but it isn’t always
The intention to move away from single-use plastic bags was a good one but the rise of the cotton tote bag has created other problems, says an environmental activist.

SINGAPORE: How many times have you been offered a cotton tote bag, only for you to have no choice but to begrudgingly accept? There’s a high chance every household will have several of these tote bags sitting around, collecting dust.

The reusable tote started life as an antidote to heavy plastic use, as awareness on sustainability and how we use resources rose over the years.

But event organisers have been handing out tote bags en masse, and they are readily available at supermarkets and clothing chains. Even this year’s National Day Parade pack incorporated reusable and recyclable backpacks.

If we’re collecting tote bags by the dozens, are they really eliminating waste and encouraging reuse?

After all, the production of tote bags comes at a cost to the earth as well, a cost that sometimes exceeds that of plastic bags. A NTU study in 2020 found that in Singapore’s context, reusable cotton bags, compared to reusable plastic bags (when both are reused 50 times), have over 10 times more global warming potential.

Researchers said that we’d have to use these reusable cotton bags hundreds of times before they become the better choice over single-use alternatives.

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In order to understand cotton totes’ massive environmental footprint, we need to look at how they are produced.

First, cotton is a resource-intensive crop. A 2018 study showed that even an organic cotton tote needs to be used a whopping 20,000 times to offset the impact of its production, specifically, high water and land use because cotton is a “thirsty” crop. It takes 900 days of a human’s drinking water use to make enough fibre for a single t-shirt.

Yet organic cotton has a better environmental track record compared to regular cotton. It contributes 46 per cent less to global warming, involves 70 per cent less land and water acidification, 91 per cent less surface and groundwater use and 62 per cent less energy demand, according to Textile Exchange’s life-cycle assessment.

Second, cotton totes usually have prints on them. These use PVC dyes which are not easily biodegradable, rendering them effectively unrecyclable.

When anything is made by mass production, tagging “sustainable” onto it is a meaningless add-on. As these bags are made in huge batches and provided at a low cost, they are quite likely churned out in a factory that pays minimal wages and little heed to the environment.

Currently, there’s no regulation in the fashion industry that requires companies to break down their “organic” labels. Without that accountability, you never really know if an organic cotton tote is 100 per cent organic or not. Brands may very well be greenwashing.


Having said that, do tote bags absolve us of our plastic bag sins?

Certainly, using a reusable bag and avoiding plastic has its environmental merits. We should be shifting away from throwaway culture as much as possible.

After all, 91 per cent of all plastic isn’t recycled. With the bulk of plastic being incinerated or left to “decompose” in landfills, they end up polluting our air, land, and water.

And even when plastic is “recycled”, it often means that the toxic waste is exported to poorer countries that don’t have the proper infrastructure to manage it, but who buy it anyway to bring in more income.

In fact, since China’s ban on imported plastic waste, many Chinese recyclers have illegally relocated to other Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.

This entire process of waste being exported from richer countries to poorer ones is known as waste colonialism, in the field of discard studies. So we need to ask ourselves if our sustainable solution has become another problem in itself.

With the feel-good “I’m not a plastic bag” messaging emblazoned across reusable bags sold at fast fashion outlets, neighbourhood supermarkets, and even IKEA, one wonders if actual sustainability isn’t the end goal of the push for tote bags, but rather the performance of sustainability. 

It is an easy tick in the sustainability box without having to substantively change operations and product lines to actually reduce waste.

An employee packs groceries inside cloth tote bags at a supermarket, Bali, Indonesia. (File photo: AFP/SONNY TUMBELAKA)

In 2019, H&M joined other major retailers in charging 10 cents for each shopping bag across Singapore stores, to encourage customers to bring their own reusable bags or buy one at check-out if they don't have any.

H&M said it reached its 2020 goal of using 100 per cent sustainably sourced cotton, defined as organic, recycled or sourced through global non-profit Better Cotton Initiative. But fast fashion giants still maintain a take-make-waste business model one that racks up emissions and pollution.


Let’s be clear that avoiding single-use plastics is important. Governments and businesses need to address the issue of its overproduction.

But it’s also important to remember too many tote bags  end up as shelf display pieces – or more likely, shoved in kitchen cupboards. It’s not always the more sustainable option to own yet another reusable bag.

What do we do about the onslaught of these bags? The next time you get offered one, just say no. Instead, ask why the company needs to keep making more.

Many of us work in companies or go to schools that do make unwanted tote bags. Tell whichever department or group that’s making them to do something else with their budget instead.

Perhaps they could donate the money budgeted for the bags to a climate justice organisation in Singapore or Southeast Asia. Or they could gift people something sustainable and practical instead, like a voucher to a plant-based eatery, or maybe even to offset their electricity bill if they’ve switched to renewable options.

This tote bag problem reveals how deeply entrenched our single-use habits are: We just replaced the bag with a different material without fixing the problem.

What we need to fix is our consumerist, throw-away culture. We simply need to stop buying less because we don’t need more stuff and we can share the stuff we already have. 

If organisations are so intent on us using less bags, then maybe they should implement bag-sharing initiatives instead.

After all, we have enough bags to go around – probably for the rest of our lives. Whatever the answer is: Another cotton tote bag certainly isn’t it.

Tammy Gan is a social media activist and freelance writer focused on getting people to think deeper about environmental and social justice issues, in service of more just futures.

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Source: CNA/el