We Almost Replaced Plastic With Cotton, Here’s Why We Didn’t

“Plastic Free” is on everyone’s mind this month at SunCommon as the Plastic Free July campaign gets under way. We were stoked to join the movement to reduce pollution, reduce dependence on the petroleum industry, and conserve resources. But as we dug into ways we could support this cool campaign, we realized plastic use is not the cut and dry issue we thought it was!

I found it nearly impossible to go plastic free at my home.

Nearly every part of our day touches single-use plastic, whether it’s the cereal bag and the tube the toothpaste gets squeezed out of, all the way to the clothes we wear and our hobbies. Single-use plastic packaging is wrapped up in so many of our products and activities, it’s hard to avoid even if the product itself isn’t plastic.

Here at SunCommon, I found the journey to be tricky too.

We tried to create a reusable shopping bag for our customers. Our first thought was a cute cotton tote bag, but turns out that cotton is incredibly resource hungry!

A study in Denmark looked at the overall resources necessary and the carbon footprint impact of common bag choices. An organic cotton tote bag requires enormous resources to produce. In theory, you use it a lot, so you can spread out that impact to multiple uses. But it takes so much energy to create a bag, that you have to reuse that bag 20,000 times to spread out the cumulative carbon impact of all those resources. Only then is the cotton tote bag’s carbon footprint less than a single-use plastic bag’s. That means you’d have to use your cotton tote bag every day for almost 55 years!

So that new cotton tote bag will reduce marine pollution, but sets us back in climate change.

Whoa – we were shocked. That wasn’t the answer we were looking for.

Recycling to the rescue

The bag we ultimately decided on is made of recycled materials by a fellow B Corp, Chico Bags. The materials they use don’t contribute to micro plastics in the ocean and they help turn a material that would have just been trash into something usable.

The more we dig into this issue, the more we find that re-using existing materials is a key part of the solution. So as you think about ditching plastic in July, think about what you can re-use or do without instead of buying something new. Instead of buying a brand new cotton tote bag, consider turning a worn out pair of jeans into a bag instead (there’s heaps of tutorials on how to do this!). Instead of replacing your plastic straw with a metal straw, forego a straw altogether. 

These are small individual actions you can take in your own life. How can you help increase your impact? Consider reaching out to your favourite companies and asking them what they are doing to reduce plastic pollution or host a jeans-to-bag workshop in your own community.

Learn more about Plastic Free July

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