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Is Canvas Fabric Eco-Friendly?

Priscilla Greene |

The most common (eco) canvas fabrics are (organic) cotton and linen, although historically speaking canvas used to be made of hemp. Canvas tote bags are usually produced of one of the first two materials. The beauty of canvas fabrics is that unlike single-use bags, canvas bags can be used countless of times and can carry around 5 times as much as conventional plastic bags.

They can be also cleaned if dirty or patched if torn and can be rendered as good as new. Also, they are decomposable and aren’t lingering hundreds of years in our landfills or oceans. This is why, canvas tote bags have been touted as a greener alternative to plastic grocery bags.

Yet, European experts have recently challenged this assumption. They believe that the carbon footprint and other hidden costs of canvas fabric production offset the obvious environmental benefits of canvas shopping bags.

So, Is Canvas Fabric Eco-Friendly?

The answer largely depends on what each person understands when “eco-friendly” is brought up in discussion. Some people believe that eco-friendly refers to things that don’t pollute the landfills, streams and oceans. For those people, canvas tote bags are a true eco-friendly alternative to plastic bags.

Other people, on the other hand, get a closer look at things and for them, an eco-friendly product is a product that is friendly on the planet’s resources, such as water, air, fossil fuels, and more. It is worth noting that, from this point of view, a single canvas tote made from cotton needs as many resources to produce as 400 plastic bags do.

Surprisingly, last year, a team of experts at Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food found that plastic shopping bags might be better for the environment than cotton tote bags or paper bags. The Danish study took into account a canvas tote bag’s entire life cycle and compared it to that of a classic plastic bag. Researchers found that a cotton tote needs to be reused 7,100 times to match the environmental impact of a classic plastic bag. Moreover, organic cotton shopping bags seem to be even more damaging to the environment, according to Danish researchers, as they need to be reused at least 20,000 times to match the environmental impact of a classic shopping bag.

These findings are in line with another research paper published in 2011 in the U.K. According to the researchers at the UK Environment Agency (UKEA), canvas tote bags have the highest global-warming potential when compared with other types of shopping bags (plastic, paper, and recycled-polypropylene bags.)

The British study found that it takes thousands of uses for a canvas bag to be more eco-friendly than a classic plastic bag. Also, paper bags should be used three times or more to be as eco-friendly as their plastic counterparts. When it comes to cotton totes the findings were more dire – canvas totes should be reused more than 130 times to match plastic bags’ environmental impact.

British researchers recommend reusing even plastic bags, at least once, to offset their climate change potential, and the best way to reuse a not-so-good-looking plastic bag is lining the trash can with it.

However, neither the Danish study nor the British one took into account ocean pollution when assessing each type of shopping bag’s environmental impact. Ocean pollution is serious business, and humanity’s plastic waste continues to build up in the oceans and literally choke marine life. 

Plastic Waste Is Choking Our Oceans

There are countless documentaries on ocean plastics pollution, with gruesome images of birds’ and fish’s dissected bodies being packed with plastic material. It is estimated that over just one decade, humanity has produced as much plastic as it did in a century.

A United Nations report shows that marine debris impacts over 800 of marine species, and plastics account for around 80% of that debris. Every year, the world throws 13 million metric tons of plastic waste in the oceans. In other words, the load of a garbage truck is discarded in the oceans every single minute.

Some plastics wash up on beaches, some end up on the bottom of the ocean or sea, while others are being consumed by marine life that mistake them for food. A large part of plastics waste ends up in ocean gyres, and plastic bags are no exception.

It is estimated that a single plastic bag takes from 10 to 1,000 years to fully decompose, while a plastic bottle takes around 500 years to break down. If plastics are swallowed by ocean gyres, they are broken down faster in tiny bits that later end up in the seafood we consume. So, it makes sense to replace our classic grocery bags with canvas totes in the long run.

Turning Cotton into a True Eco Canvas Fabric

Cotton is the number one canvas fabric due to its versatility and ease of production. But manufacturing cotton involves some environmental costs as the crop is extremely water-intensive and requires herbicides and pesticides to grow. Cotton’s most dramatic negative impact is on water availability.

Researchers have found that one cotton T-shirt and a pair of jeans need 20,000 liters of fresh water to be manufactured. In India, up to 95% of the increasingly scarce fresh water goes to agriculture. Water is usually wasted in cotton production because of subpar irrigation methods, lack of green education, and poverty.

Fortunately, there are initiatives to make cotton a real eco canvas fabric. For instance, the international non-profit Better Cotton Initiative (BCI) has partnered with retailers that routinely use cotton in their products, such as Ikea, Esprit, Nike, and C&A, to help cotton farmers reduce their costs with water, chemicals, and energy and make their crops more eco-friendly.

In 2005, Ikea, which uses more than 200,000 tons of cotton every year, launched a program that taught farmers how to strategically plant the crop, and by 2011, the water use in cotton production in that area sank by 37% and pesticide use by nearly 50%. Ikea has recently reported that the cotton production-related water use of the farmers enrolled in its programs dropped by 50% on average. Also, the Swedish furniture giant now boasts that nearly 25% of the cotton it uses is sustainable. So, it looks like there’s a bright future ahead of the world’s most popular canvas fabric.