Cotton vs. Plastic Bags: The Battle for Sustainability

Plastic bags remain widely in-use by Indonesian vendors in traditional markets, supermarkets and local MSMEs. Credit: Unsplash/Fauzan.

Indonesia’s Plastic Waste Emergency

A shocking World Bank study shed light on the state of plastic consumption and waste management in Indonesia. The country faces significant challenges in managing its annual generation of approximately 7.8 million tons of plastic waste.

Roughly 4.9 million tons of plastic waste is mismanaged, including improper disposal in open dumpsites or leakage from poorly managed landfills. The majority of mismanaged plastic waste originates from rural areas with limited waste collection rates. Meanwhile, uncollected waste contributes more to plastic waste discharges than leakages from final disposal sites. To put a cherry on top, only a small fraction of plastic is recycled.

Moreover, direct disposal in water remains the primary reason that plastic waste enters and accumulates in rivers, particularly in regions lacking adequate waste collection services. Land-based sources account for an estimated 346.5 kiloton/year of plastic waste discharged into the marine environment, with rivers responsible for 83% of this leakage.

All of these demonstrate the persistent nature of the significant plastic problem in Indonesia, without any signs of decrease. Worse, Indonesia might be the subject of this study but it is by far not the only country with this problem. It is a global issue that requires urgent solution.

Paper vs. Cotton vs. Plastic

In an attempt to address this plastic problem, many companies or retailers such as Starbucks, Burger King and Informa have opted to offer bags made of other materials, such as paper bags or cotton bags, as an alternative to plastic bags, which have been in use for decades. Some places like Jakarta even have new regulations that compel companies to undertake this action, with the aim to reduce usage of plastic bags.

However, the question remains: does cotton bags, for instance, offer greater sustainability than plastic bags when the entire life cycle of the material is taken into consideration? Or are Indonesian customers being exposed to false practice of greenwashing by large businesses – which could stem from these companies’ own lack of literacy on sustainability – as part of their own sustainability-driven future?

The prevalent use of cotton bags as an alternative to plastic ones in Indonesia could be a shock to many who are not familiar with the sustainability practice in the country. Such practice may evoke the image of Indonesia as an environmental-friendly country, with commitments to preserving the environment and combating the climate crisis.

However, it is essential to critically examine the validity of this assumption. It is widely acknowledged that we face a significant plastic problem characterized by excessive production and usage, particularly of single-use plastic, coupled with insufficient recycling and reuse efforts.

Though many businesses have joined the shift from plastic to cotton bags, there is an imperative to assess whether this shift genuinely aligns with climate-friendly objectives.

A study by the Columbia Climate School in 2020 explores the climate impacts of different shopping bag types, namely plastic, paper and cotton bags. The study emphasizes the employment of a life cycle analysis (LCA) to evaluate the environmental consequences associated with each bag type. Factors taken into account include energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water usage and pollution levels.

Plastic bags, made from high-density polyethylene (HDPE) or low-density polyethylene (LDPE), have a lower environmental impact during production compared to paper or reusable bags. However, their major drawback is their contribution to litter, which has become a significant environmental problem in Indonesia and worldwide. Plastic bags are rarely recycled and their persistence in the environment as microplastics poses a threat to marine life.

Take a look, for example, at Indonesian rivers, including the notorious Citarum River, which face a severe problem of plastic pollution. Plastic waste, especially from single-use plastics, is a major contributor to the pollution in these rivers.

When it comes to beaches, Bali’s Jimbaran, Kuta, Seminyak and Canggu have also been plagued by plastic waste pollution, with an estimated 100 tonnes of plastic and paper waste piling up to one meter high along the shores. The pollution on Bali’s beaches is primarily caused by marine pollution blown from the neighbouring densely populated island of Java.

Worse, microplastics in Indonesia pose a threat to the country’s food chain, with plastic waste breaking down into microplastics that are ingested by marine life and make their way into the human diet. Traces of microplastics have been found in fish caught by Indonesian fishermen. The potential health risks of microplastics, which contain toxins that can cause cancer and other damage, underscore the urgency of addressing this problem.

Paper bags, although biodegradable and made from a renewable resource, have their own set of environmental concerns. The paper production process requires the felling of trees to certain extent and involves the heavy use of toxic chemicals, resulting in significant air and water pollution. Paper bags also weigh more and require more fuel for transportation, leading to higher energy consumption and costs.

Cotton bags are actually considered less sustainable than both paper bags and plastic bags. Cotton bags, while renewable and biodegradable, have the highest environmental impact among the bag options discussed. Cotton cultivation requires large amounts of water, land and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The manufacturing processes for cotton bags, such as spinning, weaving and dyeing also consume substantial energy and water resources. Furthermore, the limited textile recycling options make it difficult to dispose of cotton bags sustainably.

There needs to be a more critical examination as to why cotton bags are being promoted by companies as a more environmentally-conscious option. Is our concern about the plastic problem so intense that we have become oblivious to the actual greenhouse gas emissions and the existing research in this field? Furthermore, are these companies engaging in greenwashing, misleading Indonesian customers into believing they are contributing to a climate-friendly movement? Or does sustainability remain an elusive concept to companies due to its complexity?

Usage Considerations

When it comes to durability, cotton bags generally exhibit greater resilience than single-use plastic bags, though they may not be as robust as paper bags. Designed for multiple uses, cotton bags offer the potential to replace not just one plastic bag but several. By using cotton bags repeatedly, we can actively contribute to the necessary movement to sustain the planet for future generations. However, the critical question is this: do we actually utilize cotton bags in this manner, as intended, for them to be a superior alternative to plastic in terms of emissions?

Statistics from six years ago reveal that over 60% of Indonesian households admitted that they never bring their own bags while shopping. While we hope things have improved for the better since then, this suggests that many bags are used only once or a few times. However, if the situation remains unchanged today, with cotton bags being used only once or infrequently – instead of multiple times as intended – it becomes difficult to assert their positive climate contributions. In fact, according to the study by the Columbia Climate School, the opposite may hold true. Cotton bags are meant to be used multiple times, but if we do not use them this way, we would only be contributing to more emissions than when we use plastic bags.

Anecdotal evidence further supports this observation, as businesses readily distribute cotton bags to customers, sometimes engaging in seemingly competitive endeavour to give away the largest number of such bags, all for the sake of being labelled an environmental-friendly company.

For instance, when ordering McDonald’s through Grab, the food is often delivered in a bag. Many stores primarily offer non-plastic bags, requiring customers to purchase new ones if they do not bring their own. Even social events present giveaways (which themselves may lack sustainability) in cotton bags.

Consequently, one may find themselves accumulating an excess of cotton bags, unsure of how to utilize them all. In some instances, these bags may be repurposed as garbage bags after only a few uses due to a scarcity of plastic bags and an abundance of cotton bags. Is this the path toward a more sustainable society and the saving of our planet, or is it a dead-end that necessitate us to take one step back and change our direction?

Changing Our Habits

Perhaps the solution to the problem lies neither in reverting to plastic nor in perpetuating the consumption of cotton bags. Instead, a third alternative emerges: changing our habits. Our inclination has been to use plastic bags once or twice before disposing of them. Now, as we transition to alternative bag types like cotton bags here in Indonesia – and globally –  we must adapt our habits accordingly. Sustaining the environment requires the multiple use of cotton bags, not only once or twice.

How can society effectuate this change? While some individuals have already embraced this new approach to bag usage, many of us have not, which is necessitating a collective effort. Can governments and businesses, through their marketing campaigns, create awareness and facilitate a shift in consumer habits?

Companies, with their financial and societal influence, can play a pivotal role in driving this change. By actively shifting their behavior and adopting a heightened consciousness regarding bag consumption, companies can raise the threshold for distributing bags. Moreover, more accurate marketing practices that honestly address the need to shift our mindsets and habits in the context of transitioning to cotton bags, away from plastic, can greatly contribute to improving the situation.

Instead of focusing solely on highlighting their virtue in providing cotton bags, without presenting the broader picture and inadvertently engaging in greenwashing, companies can leverage their marketing prowess to help individuals transform their actions and habits in response to the cotton bag issue.

However, it is important to emphasize that, ultimately, it is the actions of the customers that hold true significance if we wish to combat climate change. We can use the cotton bags that the businesses are offering, but we need to know how to use them.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Birger Kydland is an MBA/MSc candidate under the ASEAN Master in Sustainability Management a collaborative master program designed by Gadjah Mada University, Indonesia, and University of Agder, Norway.