All over the world, they are replacing plastic bags. But from an ecological point of view, it is not clear that the tote bag is a miracle solution. Unless you reuse it very regularly.
You pick up one when you visit a museum, another when you make a donation to a charity, a third at a concert, a fourth in a bookshop, a fifth in a clothes shop and yet another when you order from an online shop. Try to count your own, you’ll probably end up with more than ten. Or even twenty. Or even more.
The tote bag – a canvas or fabric bag with two handles, often printed and personalised – has invaded our daily lives. A market estimated at 40 and 50 million pieces per year in France, says Yves Dubief, president of the Union of Textile Industries (UIT) to BFMTV.com. Also CEO of Tenthorey, a textile company in the Vosges, he says he produces 4 million pieces a year – including those sold by the Elysée Palace shop.
The market has exploded in France since 2017 and the ban on free single-use plastic bags. “There was a big boom at that time with production increasing sixfold,” continues the Tenthorey executive. “Since then, the market has reached a plateau even though it is still slightly increasing.”
An “ecological alternative”?
Etymologically, the word “tote bag” comes from the English “tote” which means “to carry”. It is the descendant of the German jute bag favoured by environmental activists in the 1970s, as recounted in Karambolage, the Arte programme on Franco-German culture. Over the past fifteen years, it has become an indispensable item, offered as goodies or set up as a real fashion accessory. Even the big names in luxury goods, such as Chanel, have taken to it.
Above all, it is regularly presented as a much greener option than plastic bags. Tenthorey, for example, boasts of a “citizen bag”, presented on the brand’s website as a “real ecological alternative” that is part of a “responsible production and consumption logic”. But the energy bill for most tote bags is actually quite high.
According to the UN, the fashion industry alone is responsible for 8% to 10% of carbon dioxide emissions, more than international flights and shipping combined. As for the water footprint, the textile industry is the third largest consumer in the world, after wheat and rice cultivation. Not to mention the use of pesticides and fertilisers – cotton farming uses 4% of the world’s nitrogen and phosphorus fertilisers, according to Ademe in its memo La Mode sans dessus-dessous.
“We must look at the entire life cycle of the product,” Nolwenn Touboulic, an engineer in charge of textiles, paper and cardboard, wood and plastics in water at Ademe, told BFMTV.com. “It’s a whole chain whose impacts must be looked at.”
From the production of raw materials – 70% of synthetic fibres come from oil – to processing – which requires energy consumption – via manufacturing – with the use of polluting dyes – and then transport and distribution. Then the user may have to wash it, and washing releases micro-fibres – some 20% of water pollution is attributable to the dyeing and treatment of textiles, according to Ademe. And finally the end of life.
“All this so that it ends up at the bottom of a cupboard or in the bin”, deplores Marine Foulon, representative of the Zero Waste France association, for BFMTV.com. Eight out of ten textiles are in fact thrown away and end up in landfills or incinerators.
The other problem with the tote bag is its low recycling potential. Only 12% of fashion items sold in France are recycled and less than 1% of the fabrics that make up our clothes are recycled. “The tote bag could be a solution if its use was sustainable, if it did not end up being thrown away and if it was designed to minimise its impact on the environment,” says Nolwenn Touboulic of Ademe.
She mentions undyed models, made in France with recycled materials or fabric scraps. But for Marine Foulon, from Zero Waste France, recycling is far from a panacea.
“It’s not a miracle solution. You still have to transport the textiles, sometimes to take them abroad because there are few channels, and again use energy and chemicals to transform them. It doesn’t make sense.
Yves Dubief, the CEO of Tenthorey – which supplies supermarkets, local authorities and cultural institutions – defends his product. Its cotton is woven in France and the printing and screen-printing are also done in France. It also specifies that 10% of its bags are made from recycled cotton.
“On recycled cotton, the growth is 50% per year knowing that we started from zero. Our bags are not for single use: distributors sell them. It’s not a waste.
But according to the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (Ademe), which compared the life cycles of bags used for packaging fruit and vegetables (without taking into account the abandonment of plastics in nature), a tote bag would have to be used at least 40 times for it to be more virtuous than plastic bags. In another study, which takes more factors into account, the UK Environment Agency suggests a minimum of 173 uses.
A more recent study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency goes even further. By looking at more effects, including the impact on the ozone layer, it estimates that 7100 reuses would be needed to offset the total environmental cost of the tote bag. Even more for organic cotton bags: 20,000 reuses. This would mean using the same bag, every day, for almost fifty-five years.
For Marine Foulon, from Zero Waste France, if the tote bag can indeed represent an alternative to the plastic bag, it is only if it is used and reused regularly. And to have only one or two.
“The problem, like many other alternatives to single-use products such as the water bottle, is that they are multiplying,” she told BFMTV.com. “They come in all shapes and colours. But replacing a single-use product with one that is only used once or twice is far from being ecological.”
Céline Hussonnois-Alaya, BFMTV journalist