Did you know:
According to one study from UK’s Environmental Agency, a cotton bag's carbon footprint is 598.6 pounds of CO2, compared to 3.48 pounds for a standard plastic bag made from high-density polyethylene.
As you’ve witnessed, stores have shifted away from carrying plastic bags and moved towards paper and cotton alternatives. However, this shift has costs of its own. Plastic bags take roughly 1000 years to degrade in a landfill. 100% cotton totes take roughly 5 months. Based on those numbers you've probably made the deduction to say cotton totes are the way to go. Unfortunately however, this is not always the case. Both types of bags have their pros and cons. Plastic takes years to biodegrade and cotton takes months.
But let's backtrack. Take a look at the number of pounds each material costs the planet in terms of CO2 emissions. The production of cotton totes emits roughy 172 times more CO2 than producing plastic HDPE bags.
According to the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark, the cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times in order to offset its overall environmental impact. A report from the Environment Agency of England showed that HDPE or "single use plastic bags", should be used around 5 times in order to offset their environmental impact.
All so daunting.
But at the end of the day, the key to effectively reducing the environmental costs of bags (paper, plastic, cotton, etc) is to reuse them. Now that we see the transition from plastic to cotton and paper in stores, it is crucial that we reuse them. These materials leave a significant carbon footprint on our environment. We now see companies like Lululemon, Roots, Saje, Safeway, etc providing non-woven polypropylene bags. They go through manufacturing processes that include printing and embroidery work. Businesses are giving away these totes as promotional products; trade shows, tournaments, takeaway orders, etc. After a while, we find ourselves throwing them away. What started as a solution to the "single use plastic bag" has slowly created a greater problem. If these bags are not reused thousands of times they are in-fact worse on our environment than the original plastic shopping bags we moved away from. Getting a reusable bag and not reusing the bag is not helpful, it is harmful.
Understanding climate change can be overwhelming. The above is a great example of this. My research on shopping bags and their environmental impact is just one way to show you that we are not perfect and we are constantly learning. Scientists are conducting tests daily and as a result, what we once thought was a solution may turn out to be another problem. That is why it is crucial that individuals approach the topic in an open-minded and altruistic manner.
Unfortunately, it is a polarizing subject that often pushes people away from trying to understand it. As someone who is trying to understand it themselves, I get it. I am by no means an expert in this field. However, if I were to recommend one thing, start small. Instead of scrolling through social media for 20 minutes, take 10 minutes to watch a youtube video on the subject. Challenge yourself to learn one new thing a dayabout the subject and start to implement corrective action when you learn about how you can "do your part".
You will never be perfect but keeping yourself (and others) accountable is the only way we can limit global warming to below 2 degrees celsius. As I mentioned, I am not an expert in this subject and I don't want to overstep my scope. So I will leave it to the experts and provide you with a list of my favourite videos and readings on the subject. I hope these lists can spark curiosity and active engagement on the subject of climate change. Changing the projection of our planets climate can only be done if we act cohesively but we must first start by educating ourselves.
If you are more of visual learner here are excellent videos, movies and documentaries:
1. What is Climate Change | Start Here
2. The Condor and The Eagle (Click on this link)
2. Chasing Coral (Netflix)
3. An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Truth Sequel (Rent on Youtube)
4. Our Planet (Netflix)
5. Kiss the Ground (Netflix)
6. Paris to Pittsburgh (Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video)
7. Cowspiracy (Netflix)
A list of my favourite articles, books and courses:
2. How to Avoid a Climate Change Disaster by Bill Gates
3. The Climate Solutions Consensus: What We Know and What To Do About It by National Council for Science and the Environment
4. Nasa: Global Climate Change webpage
5. United Nations Climate Action webpage
6. The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac
7. Climate change: IPCC report is 'code red for humanity' BBC article by Matt McGrath
Thank you for staying curious. Now, go reuse those shopping bags.
Update (August 29, 2021): Why is cotton so damaging and what can be done to reduce its impact on our planet?
Cotton is grown in tropical or sub-tropical climates. Therefore, the production of cotton typically occurs in countries like Pakistan, India, China, and some parts of the U.S. The farms that grow cotton are typically situated on small plots of land (averaging 5 acres) and lack the infrastructure for good agricultural practice. It takes on average 20,000 litres of water to produce one t-shirt and a pair of jeans. High carbon emissions are directly related to water waste (due to the lack of technology and irrigation systems), deforestation and compromised soil (due to low quality pesticides). These countries are constantly at risk for water shortages, pressure is placed on local rivers and basins for water resources. The production of organic cotton (averaging 46% less CO2 emissions) is typically not an option for these countries because organic pesticides and chemicals are more expensive. Finding ways to improve carbon sequestration (ie. improving irrigation methods, technology, and forest regrowth) is key in order to reduce carbon emissions during the production phase. However, the majority of emissions come from the consumer phase of the supply-chain. This includes: manufacturing plants, transportation and distribution. This phase of the supply-chain can be revised by: increasing the efficiency of transportation technology, low-carbon fuel alternatives, a dramatic decrease to overconsumption and an increase to proper recycling practices. This part of the supply-chain presents many obstacles as it boils down to the cooperation of organizations in finding solutions to their individual carbon footprints and of course policy making...