Sustainability: Are Tote Bags better than Plastics?

I founded a new sustainable enterprise and my research shows the answer to that question is not as easy as it seems

Photo by bach hanzo from Pexels

In a shift away from plastics, many have turned to sustainable products as a plastics replacement. Most ditching all types of plastics, including recycled and bioplastic made from food waste like corn, in favour of products like Totes. Rightly assuming the single use, throwaway plastics are bad for the climate. As countries take greater steps to ban and legislate against single use plastics, this shift is only set to increase.

Yet, the tussle between plastics and non-plastics isn’t clear-cut. Bioplastics’ reputation in the green community was damaged when CPLA or “vegware” plastics could not be composted in garden compost while marketed as “compostable” in only 12 weeks. What was left off labels was the fact it needs industrial composting facilities to compost. These generate temperatures at the top end of the 70 degrees Celsius and nurture appropriate microbes and humidity for the bioplastics to decompose. Above the 30 to 55 degrees of a residential or community compost pile.

Reusable tote bags move us away from disposable plastics, but consumes cleaning energy that otherwise wouldn’t be needed and in some cases, ejects harmful detergent microbeads into the marine ecosystem.

Having recently created a new sustainable platform, I’ve had to go on a journey. The question, which seems deceptively easy, is anything but. Receptivity really depends on knowing your audience and what your aims and values are. There are a few things you need to consider when advocating for plastic replacements

  1. It’s not about form, it’s about function. The vast majority of existing plastic bags are used to put something in. Nothing beats the convenience of bags next to checkouts at supermarkets, consumed mostly by people who don’t have enough bags-for-life when they arrive and choose to settle for a plastic one if they don’t buy another tote. Even plastic bags-for-life are not reused as often as they should be. In the UK, only 35% of people reuse plastic bags-for-life before taxes were levied. That rose to nearly 70% after the tax was introduced.
  2. Tote bags are not carbon neutral. They require cleaning to remain safe. So it is important to get energy from renewables and source detergent made from eco-friendly materials for this to become viable. Otherwise, it only replaces the climate cost of environmentally harmful plastics, with the climate cost of harmful cleaning and emissions, that’s heavier per bag, than the bags itself. As well as ejecting micro-plastics into the sewage system and eventually into the rivers, lakes and oceans, to be devoured by small creatures and through the food chain into the human body (e.g. via fish).
  3. While it takes 4kg of oil to create 1kg of plastics, plus 0.003 kWh of energy to make each plastic bag, a tote takes 0.03 kWh of energy to make and 0.2kWh to wash in a washing machine at 40 degrees Celsius for 39 minutes, plus another 0.1kWh of drying. Meaning the climate cost of totes, only keeps running away from plastics. However, tote & cloth bags certainly don’t harm soils or marine life in the same way.
  4. Not all tote bags are vegan friendly. Some use leather, others use wool. Meaning positioning needs to align to people’s ethics. Get it wrong, and you’ll never ever recover, even if you get it right the second time.
  5. Some contexts simply can’t remove plastics — Healthcare is a prime example. Equipment like butterfly cannula cannot be replaced by stainless steel or glass, because of the risk of injury to the patient. These plastics have particular uses that cannot be replaced by other materials.

If you really care about the environment, understanding systemic effects is crucial to developing an understanding of the climate cost of all steps in your use-reuse cycle. Unless our businesses consider the systemic climate cost of reuse, it can risk becoming more harmful to the climate than plastics bags. Especially if that plastic is reused, not thrown away.

Tote bags are infinitely better to manufacture because of the choice of material and reduced carbon footprint. Much better than consuming oil to make plastic bags. Yet, reuse models often introduce steps that don’t exist in the plastic bag ecosystem and if not careful, can be worse for the climate through the use of harmful detergents and energy.

There is definitely a generational divide. Gen Z use totes and are more actioned than the two generations before them. Their consumer demand will only increase as they enter their mid to late 20s and 30s.

For every 1kg of plastics, we can’t put that 4kg of crude oil back in the ground. However, we certainly don’t want to put plastics back there.

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Deeper dives available at Automedi’s HealthMaker blog.

EA, Stats, Math & Code into a fizz of a biz or two. Founder: Automedi & Axelisys. Proud Manc. Citizen of the World. I’ve been busy