Is jute or cotton a better material for eco-friendly shopping bags?

Using disposable shopping bags is taking its toll on the environment and is now frowned upon by many of us as we try to lead more sustainable lifestyles. Considering that a plastic bag can take over 500 years to decompose – to the huge detriment of the ground and its nearby waterways – it is widely recognised that an eco-friendly shopping bag is a necessity. But making the right choice when it comes to the best material for your shopping bag can often be confusing. Let’s find out whether jute or cotton really makes the best choice when it comes to eco-friendly shopping bags.

What is so bad about plastic?

Not so long ago, plastic bags were an integral part of your weekly shops. Shoving your groceries into fistfuls of plastic carriers as they flew down the conveyor belt was normal; you could take as many as you wanted, and few of us questioned the impact. Little did we know that 10% of the trillion or so plastic bags used would end up in the ocean, littering the ocean floor where they are unable to decompose. Once there, they contribute to marine animals perishing, either from suffocation or from them mistakenly being eaten. Even reusable plastic bags need to be used more than 100 times, to justify the higher environmental costs associated with their manufacturing. So, with plastic off the menu when it comes to choosing an environmentally sustainable shopping bag, which material makes the most sense: cotton or jute?

Is cotton really the answer?

We know plastic is irrevocably harmful when it comes to the environment, so surely it goes without saying that cotton makes a better choice? Well, sadly it’s not that simple. Although cotton is not a manmade material like plastic, it nevertheless requires a lot of manmade products when it is farmed. In fact, only three crops require more chemicals in their farming than cotton. What’s more, cotton plants are thirsty crops, and the average amount of water required to create just 1 kilogram of cotton is 10,000 litres!

To make matters even worse, this water-intensive farming practice can then create soil salinisation, so other plants in the future will struggle to grow there. While it might sound like a natural and sustainable alternative to plastic, cotton crops account for some 6% of the pesticides and 16% of the insecticides used globally. These chemicals also have the undesirable effect of ridding cotton bolls of their natural biodegradability, creating yet another problem for the environment. There’s certainly an element of irony in the fact that one of the solutions to going plastic-free has created another equally significant environmental problem.

How does jute compare?

Jute is seeing a huge resurgence, as customers begin to understand the environmental impact of other materials – in particular those used in everyday shopping bags. But what is jute, and what makes it better than other options?

Well, jute is a crop that can be easily grown without harming the environment. It is grown efficiently in terms of the land it occupies, so a relatively large crop yield can be obtained from a small area. This isn’t all, though; jute can be grown quickly – in around six months – and the need for pesticides of fertilisers is minimal or non-existent.

What makes jute a good choice for shoppers?

So, jute can be grown efficiently and quickly, but perhaps even better – and this is really important in a shopping bag! – jute is strong. Cotton fibres are fragile and soft. They bend and fray easily, and that means cotton bags are prone to rips and tears. Jute, on the other hand, withstands friction and weight, so a bag made of jute makes the perfect thing in which to carry those heavy tins and bottles. The part of the jute plant used in textiles is the fibres found within the plant itself, rather than the soft part of the cotton plant’s seed, so it makes sense that jute can be used to create a much more durable material.

To round off its usefulness, bags made from jute are also breathable, which means even after years of use carrying groceries home, jute shoppers won’t go mouldy. In fact, they provide continuous airflow – unlike plastic – so perishable items stay fresh.

Aesthetic appeal

While plastic will quickly develop holes and cotton will fray, a jute bag really can last – and look good – for years. What’s more, because of the nature of its fibres, it absorbs ink easily. This makes it the ideal material to personalise. Printing jute bags with your logo or image is a great idea on such a durable material, too, as these bags are made for longevity: they’ll be lugging round groceries for years to come!  

Jute gives back to the environment

In addition to using far intensive agricultural methods, jute goes even further, and essentially benefits the environment. As well as biodegrading in its entirety, it also releases oxygen and absorbs impressive quantities of carbon dioxide. While cotton depletes the soil in which it grows, jute plants actually enrich it.

They also grow easily without additional water, existing comfortably on natural rainfall, which means the impact on the environment is far, far less than cotton. It also makes jute easy to grow in places like Bangladesh and eastern parts of India, whose hot, humid climate creates an ideal environment. This provides these countries with a much-needed foreign revenue. In the past, Bangladesh and East India relied heavily on the jute industry, and when plastics grew in popularity, sadly the industry dwindled and many of the countries’ jute mills were shut down. Now, as jute is recognised globally for its range of properties and uses, Bangladesh and India are now seeing a welcome rise in the demand for this crop.

While it is now widely recognised that we need to move away from single-use – and even reusable – plastics, making the right choice of material for a long-life shopping bag is not as straightforward as it might initially seem. Understanding the properties of cotton and jute, as well as the wider implications in their farming and production, allows us as consumers to make the best choice, both for the environment and our groceries.

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