Textile recycling and sustainability experts said that even if cotton totes are sent to be recycled, logos and messages printed on the bags are not recyclable and have to be cut out of the cloth, wasting an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of cotton received by a single recycling firm.
According to the New York Times, recycling the cotton bags that have replaced plastic for a huge number of brands takes up almost as much energy as producing them in the first place, making their impact on the environment more damaging than the public may think.
Cotton production is a resource intensive process and requires enormous amounts of water to grow the fibres. According to The Circular Laboratory, it takes between 10,000 and 20,000 litres to produce one kilogram of cotton.
A 2018 study by the Ministry of Environment and Food of Denmark found that an organic cotton tote needs to be used 20,000 times before they meet the environmental performance of conventional plastic bags.
The study also found that organic cotton bags are worse than conventional cotton in terms of overall environmental impact, as the latter only needs to be reused 7,000 times to offset the impact of production.
The evolution of the cotton tote as a “status symbol” saw high-profile brands produce them in high quantities to bag up purchases. Shaun Russell, founder of Swedish skincare brand Skandinavisk, told the New York Times that the branded totes create “mobile billboards” out of customers.
“Any brand that claims otherwise would be lying,” he said.
Other types of cotton packaging have also increased, with numerous products being sheathed in cotton bags when they do not require a protective dust covering.
Some brands are looking for more sustainable ways to reduce the impact of their branded cotton totes. Aesop’s chief customer, Suzanne Santos, told the publication that the company will convert the composition of their bags to a 60-40 blend of recycled and organic cotton as this “reduces water by 70 to 80 per cent”.
She also said that Aesop customers who have collected too many cotton totes can return them to the stores. Aesop does not promote the option on its website.
Other brands, such as Ally Capellino and Anya Hindmarch, have swapped out cotton for less resource-intensive textiles, such as hemp and recycled water bottles.