A Danish study questions whether reusable totes are more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. (Courtesy photo)

Which is better: Plastic bag or cotton tote?

Although San Francisco and California have both banned plastic bags, many city stores continue to make the contraband item available.


Although San Francisco and California have both banned plastic bags, many city stores continue to make the contraband item available. This is a huge problem for the environment. Plastic bags can easily blow away and pose a danger to wildlife. Recently, a 7-year-old sperm whale with plastic in its stomach was found on an Italian beach.

“These bags aren’t even recyclable,” Supervisor Vallie Brown, who recently introduced legislation that strengthens The City’s plastic bag ban and raises the fee to $0.25 per bag. “We need to refuse and reuse.”

But a 2018 study conducted by the Denmark Environmental Protect Agency would have you believe that reusable cotton totes are worse than plastic bags. According to the study, an organic cotton tote would have to be used approximately 20,000 times before it equaled the environmental impact of one plastic bag when considering the adverse environmental impact of manufacturing cotton totes

After recent media reports referenced the Danish study, baffled San Franciscans reached out to me for clarification.

“I’ve been using the same cotton tote for over 10 years, but perhaps I’d have done better latching on to a strong plastic bag?” Lance Carnes, a San Francisco resident, recently asked. “To be a conscious consumer it seems you need a degree in chemical engineering.”

Fortunately, a degree in chemical engineering isn’t required to see that there’s something rotten in the Denmark study. The most glaring problem is that researchers didn’t consider the effects of littering, which they considered “negligible for Denmark.” This means the conclusion doesn’t account for the impact plastic bags have on pollution and our diminishing wildlife.

Researchers also skewed the analysis in other ways. They relied on cotton production data from the 1990s, before the use of ozone layer degrading chemicals was prohibited, compared two cotton totes for every one plastic bag and assumed all bags are incinerated.

Quite simply, it’s wrong to conclude from the study that plastic bags are always better than a cotton tote.

“I’ve countered this BS report so many times,” Anne Aittonmaki with Plastic Change, an international non-governmental organization based in Denmark, told me. “It is for sure very persistent and it is highly unfortunate that it has become a reference point in the plastic bag/bag discussion in general.”

According to Aittonmaki, the Danish EPA has not admitted the study is flawed. But agency officials have reportedly expressed their displeasure about the study’s media coverage.

“They have been out saying that they were displeased with the communicative angle that went into the media,” Aittonmaki said. “We have not been able to find out who curved that ball.”

The study’s conclusion is clearly useful to trade groups fighting single-use plastic bans because it highlights the environmental negatives associated with plastic alternatives. Lobbyists have argued, for example, that growing cotton and producing yarn depletes natural resources, emits damaging chemicals and depletes oxygen and water bodies.

Yes, the textile industry is resource intensive and environmentally damaging. San Franciscans should avoid consuming new clothes, linens and totes they don’t need, and reuse and repair whenever possible.

But San Franciscans should also continue to avoid contraband plastic bags. In 2019 alone, the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, according to a new report by the Center for International Environmental Law. This is equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

Light-weight plastic bags also don’t break down in the environment, unlike biodegradable cotton, and are almost impossible to recycle. If plastic had been around during the California Gold Rush, it’s likely we would still be finding 49ers’ snack wrappers today.

It defies common sense to believe that one reusable bag is worse for the environment than the billions of plastic bags used each year in the United States alone.

“The Danish study attempts to set up a false comparison between the 1 million plastic bags we consume a minute with reusable cotton tote bags,” Robert Reed of Recology, San Francisco’s recycling provider, told me. “False comparisons distract people from true solutions.”

San Franciscans should continue using cotton totes and avoiding contraband plastic bags. City restaurants and farmers’ markets should comply with the law. It’s always best for the environment when we make full use of the things we have.


A question from a reader

Those yellow Amazon package delivery envelopes with the logo on them are ubiquitous. They don’t appear to be recyclable – no recycle symbol. But they are paper and plastic. Thoughts? – Gerri Wilson

Generally, if there’s no recycling symbol it means the item doesn’t belong in the blue bin. In the case of the Amazon delivery envelopes, the mix of paper on the outside and plastic on the inside makes it hard – if not impossible – to recycle. The same is true for items, such as cream cheese wrappers, that are a mix of foil and paper.

San Franciscans can avoid landfilling copious amounts of envelopes by buying locally. The City still has an amazing diversity of retail stores, selling everything from needle point to state-of-art electronics. We should patronize them if we want to keep our neighborhoods vibrant.

You’ve got sorting questions, I’ve got answers. Email inquiries to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com and see your name published in the Examiner!

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. Check her out at robynpurchia.com

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