Choosing plastic might sound counterintuitive, but as The Atlantic pointed out, canvas bags are actually much worse for the environment compared to their flimsy, single-use counterparts.
In a U.K. Environment Agency study, researchers crunched the environmental tally of various carrier bags such as the standard high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bag you’d get from the supermarket, as well as paper, cotton and recycled-polypropylene bags.
They found that reusing a HDPE bag once (as a waste bin liner for instance) has the same environmental impact as reusing a cotton tote bags 327 times, a recycled polypropylene plastic 26 times and a paper bag seven times.
All told, as Business Insider noted from the UKEA study, a conventional plastic bag has a total carbon footprint of only 3.48 lbs.—compared to the whopping 598.6 lbs. emitted by a cotton bag.
Here’s the takeaway. Bags that are designed to last longer require more resources—growing, harvesting, manufacturing, transportation—which means they have a greater environmental impact across their entire lifecycle.
Look, we all know that plastic bags are an eco-nightmare that harms the environment and kills wildlife. That’s why many cities and even entire states have initiated bans or imposed fees on these non-biodegradable, petroleum-based menaces. If they haven’t crammed up the space under your kitchen sink, they’re getting stuck in storm drains or in the stomachs of any number of marine animals, from fish, dolphins and whales to sea turtles and birds.
But cotton is quite possibly a bigger planetary scourge. According to the World Wildlife Fund, cotton crops account for 24 percent of the global market for insecticides and 11 percent for pesticides. In 1995, contaminated run-off from cotton fields killed more than 240,000 fish in Alabama alone.
Cotton is also incredibly thirsty. “It can take more than 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton; equivalent to a single T-shirt and pair of jeans,” the WWF says. Cotton isn’t even regularly recycled—at least many grocery stores have plastic bag recycling bins.