Too Many Totes?

Can there be too much of a good thing? Like, totes? There may not yet be an environmental impact survey on the proliferation of canvas or polypropylene tote bags, but the sheer number of them according to the Daily Heller Data Research Institute has increased one-hundred fold over the past year.

In fact, they’ve been the give-away of choice for the past couple of years:

But well-meaning companies and consumers are finding that shopping bags, like biofuels, are another area where it’s complicated to go green,” noted the Wall Street Journal back in 2008. “If you don’t reuse them, you’re actually worse off by taking one of them,” says Bob Lilienfeld, author of the Use Less Stuff Report, an online newsletter about waste prevention. And because many of the bags are made from heavier material, they’re also likely to sit longer in landfills than their thinner, disposable cousins, according to Ned Thomas, who heads the department of material science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.”

When used correctly, totes can reduce the number of plastic bags destined for landfills. The Wall Street Journal notes that four to five reusable bags can replace 520 plastic bags a year. Totes are proliferating at such high speed, however, that they just may be a potential blight. The BYOB fashion could have unintended consequences.

What do you think about totes: Environmental boon or blight?

23 thoughts on “Too Many Totes?

  1. AnaT

    I love totes and use them all the time. I am always finding new uses and with each new activity my kid picks up, I need a new tote. The danger of not having enough happened to me recently. Not finding enough for a grocery trip, I picked one up from a pile. It wasn’t until I was home and unpacking that I found my bra in one of them. It was a tote I had used to gather stuff from the first floor to take to the second floor. I flashed back to the red cheeks and down cast eyes of the bagger. Small town. Very embarrassiing.

  2. Dawn Shepard

    I agree with Roy. I’m also coming from Seattle where our state maybe the first one in the nation to ban the use of plastic grocery bags. I can see the crazy scramble now as everyone in the state tries to get resuable bags.
    On another note, as designers isn’t create and innovate what we do? Just because the market is saturated with crappy non-woven totes I’m supposed to just throw in the “bag”. Give up and say there are no more solutions? I think with the possibility of more plastic bag bans, this is the opportunity to create the best reusable bag ever! Instead of thinking about what IS out there, lets think about what’s NOT out there. I think this article is precisly setting up for innovation. It’s a complaint about a product. Now it’s up to us, as designers, to fix it.
    Read more here:

  3. wallisParnell

    After having a tote blow out the bottom, I looked at the materials being used. Are they as bad as the plastic bag? Sure they are used more, and more durable, but they will blow out under a few months of weight. My old SXSW heavy canvas bags, seem to be indestructable, Filled one up to the top with canned goods, barely pick it up, still working since 2003. But only heavy canvas bags?

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  6. Kate

    Okay, I don’t really understand some of the comments above.  My husband I used to use 10 plastic bags each week to transport food 12 miles from the grocer’s to our home.  The bags were then stuffed into the recycling bin.  Now the same 10 “totes” are used week after week for groceries and various other unavoidable purchases.  Ten totes are enough.  When offered more, “We’ve got all we need.” works.

  7. Marcia

    Well, who decided that paper bags were so terrible? I know, we didn’t have sustainable resources for them. But we do now! And still the stores offer plastic. I have two bags that I keep in my car-don’t care what they have for designs on them. Sorry to all the designers of the bags-it’s just a method of transfer to me. When I forget them at home, I use paper. Paper bags can be recycled with your newspapers, they disintegrate quickly. Plastic bags go to friends with their own stores. They reuse them. Yes we are consumers. Just have to be smarter ones.
    And to the comment that we tend to go green in appearance only-Rome wasn’t built in a day. Every little change does count. So keep it up folks. What ever contribution you can make, IT MATTERS!

  8. Arielle

    Though everybody here is right, it must be said that this tote issue, and the dilemma of whether to go reusable or use countless plastic bags has brought the idea of sustainability and wastefulness to the forefront of our thinking. Who here has been in the supermarket with an overloaded cart at the checkout aisle when you realize you forgot your reusable bags at home or in the car. An overwhelming sense of guilt and self-hatred comes over you, like YES, I do know better. At least we have that understanding as opposed to a decade ago when throwing out 39 plastic bags at once was as normal as brushing your teeth (and for many people that still is the norm). At least this issue of too many totes reveals yet another one our environmental problems: we tend to go green in appearance only and these “eco-friendly” shifts are far from even scratching the surface of any solution to our environmental problems. Sadly, we have much more pertinent problems than reusable tote bags 🙁

  9. Daniel Ypsilanti

    I’m currently trying to work with this issue of TOO MANY BAGS. The project I’m working on right now is a series of pins that make non-disposable bags more since the pins have important information about seasonal and locally available produce. 
    I think designing a better bag isn’t the solution, that only makes more bags. The problem is not that there are too few or poorly designed bags, the problem is how do you make or change non-disposable bags so that you will use them more? Clever designs and logos aren’t enough.

  10. Roy

    I have had the great joy and priviledge to design many totes, shoppers and other bag items for They have been my primary source of income for the past few years. So of course I love them and I think they look nice. However, lets face it – we have too much of everything, be it eco-friendly, free-ranging, chocolate bars or grass-fed yoga mats. The world runs on consumption. I don’t like it but it’s a fact. How many sets of earrings do you really need? Shoes? I am sure the most green products would be neutral in color, no print, no nothing. Make all cars from a rust proof raw material, no paint involved. I wanted to raise my kids in white t-shirts and blue jeans, no options but their mother said it was a dumb idea. I remember thinking when Swatches first came out how clever design-wise and marketing-wise it was but sad because now no one would be content with one watch ever again.
    p.s.I get a credit on the bottom , too.


    No. I feel so good schlepping around town with my Knoll tote or whipping out my string back which astonishes the checkout clerks. I lend them (OK, give them) out to whoever comes by and needs one. I have a bag bag and all are encouraged to borrow. Just encourage the tote people to TRY HARDER with design. No brown bags, either, no matter how green anyone thinks that might be.

  12. Mindy

    I’ve always wondered if a store would ever “test” getting people to buy totes to use by stopping ordering any more plastic bags? Would that scare people from visiting the store again? Plastic bags has always been “free” while totes are one-time-buy to reuse. On other note, I recently found out that our local grocery store does accept taking back plastic bags to re-use. I was actually surprised.

  13. Eileen

    There are too many totes in the world – the production of reusable totes has replaced the production of disposable bags and causing the same problem. There is also no incentive for using the bags that you already have. Consumers are pressured to buy a specific totebag from each establishment. CVS for example will only give me a discount on using my reusable bags if they are bags that I bought from them, not if they are my own, how does that make any sense in terms of sustainability or economy?

  14. Tamara

    The answer is simple! Stop buying them and taking them! Reuse the ones you have and shops and people won’t produce more! And on the contrary to what Jonathan says Designers are certainly NOT to blame. Companies that are cheap ask designers to create crappy bags. Designers have the potential to make ecological solutions desirable and add value to them therefor making you want to use it more and keep it longer. Sustainability is about making a product that lasts and that will be used until the very end! The consumer has to stop seeing these totes as an ecological product and start seeing its USAGE as an ecological solution! And buy things with less packaging please!

  15. Sandy Kane

    I agree we have too many low quality ‘eco-totes’ out there…. Yet, here’s a company I love. They sell washable, fabric totes (recycled polyester that comes mostly from water bottles) that can be rolled up and stuck in your purse or messenger bag, in great designs and colors.

    No I don’t work for them! I have several of these totes, keep a bunch in my car, wash them frequently and boy, are they strong! I stuff them and stuff them to the point of being hardly able to carry the darn bag and haven’t had one rip or accident yet, and my set is already 2 years old!!

  16. Jonathan

    This started out as a good thing, like Bloomberg’s tax on plastic grocery bags. I appreciate that Whole Foods gives you a little coin back if you use your own bag. But I agree it became a problem a couple years ago.

    Sadly, designers are somewhat to blame. I mean, we don’t produce the bags but we make them desirable, and thus creating personal collections. I seen lots of cool bags that I’ve painfully said “no” to. Been using a messenger bag long before the tote craze and am ok with just plain carrying something without any bag at all. Hard to convince the speedy hands bagging at the cash register sometimes. Those people are trained to be speed-dial, whether you want it or not.

  17. Gail Nickel-Kailing

    We may have reached the point of “tote bag fatique!” I think the bigger problem is that the market is saturated. We now have the dozen or so we need to do our grocery shopping carefully stored (rolled up and tucked inside on bag) and use them faithfully. I have one I like very much rolled up in my purse.

    So this consumer has now procured as many of this product as she needs.

    I won’t be quick to subscribe/buy/contribute when the premium is a tote bag. So what’s the next new idea?

    BTW – I follow you regularly – thanks for the great ideas/inspiration!

    Gail Nickel-Kailing
    GoodFood World
    goodfoodworld (dot) com

  18. Serena

    Thank YOU for blogging about this! The proliferation of these bags has driven me crazy for the past couple of years. I 100% agree with Melanie about them being a band-aid for a bigger problem. I know far too many people who feel like owning these totes means they are doing their part to help the environment. All the while more and more of these bags seem to collect and bulge out of cabinets.

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  20. Melanie

    In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the author describes a low-income character with an extensive collection, remarking that poor people like to have a lot of something because it makes them feel rich. Americans, generally speaking, are like that. We have confronted our environmental concerns not with a change in lifestyle, but replacements: this detergent for that one, these bags instead of those.
    Though “better is better,” I’m going to have to be cynical about totes. They’re a band-aid for a much more complicated problem. They absolve guilt, so that busy people feel they are free from getting involved in policies on energy, agriculture, and manufacturing standards. In the long run, totes do nothing but fuel a fad. We like our stuff, and we need a shift in values.
    …The most bizarre part of this whole tote bag craze is the sale of totes in order to raise money for environmental initiatives. Battling waste with waste seems a bit misdirected.