A Brief History of the Plastic Bag

Plastic bag litterCalifornia made headlines this fall when it became the first U.S. state to place a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags. But how did we get here: from just a few grocery stores offering customers plastic bags in the late ‘70s to today, with Americans using 100 billion plastic bags each year? Just how did the plastic bag become both so popular in our society and so problematic to the environment?

In 1965, Swedish company Celloplast came up with the design on which all modern plastic shopping bags are based: a tube of plastic sealed at the bottom to allow for the packaging of goods, an open top to insert such items into the bag and handles for convenient carrying. This model bag, which later became known as the “T-shirt plastic bag,” was made from high-density polyethylene, or No. 2-type plastic – the same used to produce plastic bottles and plastic lumber.

ExxonMobile was responsible for introducing the plastic shopping bag to the U.S., and the bag debuted in American grocery store checkout lines by the late 1970s. But the T-shirt plastic bag didn’t really start encroaching on the paper grocery bag’s territory until 1982, when two of country’s largest supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger, made the switch from paper to plastic.

The bags caused controversy immediately after they hit grocery stores – and not just for their environmental impacts. Suburban shoppers preferred paper grocery bags, which could stand upright in the trunks of their cars, while city-dwellers found the plastic bags with handles were easier to carry on their walk home from the store, the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986 (paper bags didn’t boast handles until the 1990s).

“Some customers become real irate and start shouting if they can’t get the kind of bag they want,” a clerk at a Los Angeles Vons told the paper back then. “It’s amazing how they let such a little thing get them so upset. Years ago, they didn’t even have a choice.”

But, as the war over customer bag preferences raged on, the plastic bag was winning the hearts and minds of businesses – by appealing to their bottom line. Plastic bags are simply much cheaper for stores to purchase than paper bags, which can cost up to four times what a plastic bag does. They’re also waterproof and stronger than paper bags – they can carry 1,000 times their own weight.

By the end of 1985, 75 percent of U.S. grocery stores carried plastic bags in addition to paper ones, and today, plastic bags have secured more than 80 percent of the grocery and convenience store market.

Soon after plastic bags appeared in grocery stores, environmental advocates raised concerns about their effect on the planet. Like other plastic products, plastic bags are made from oil and natural gas – resources that have significant environmental, political and social impacts during extraction and production.

And because the bags are so lightweight and aerodynamic, they can easily fly out of garbage and recycling trucks or bins — and litter our streets, communities and waterways. Plastic bags also pose a particularly serious threat to marine life once they end up in bodies of water. Marine animals often mistake the plastic bags for food and ingest them (bags look just like jellyfish, a favorite treat for sea turtles), leading to starvation, suffocation or drowning.

But what really drew the public’s attention to the environmental impact of plastic bags was the 1997 discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a giant gyre of plastic litter that has collected in the North Pacific Ocean.

By the early 2000s, governments across the world were placing restrictions on plastic bags: from Bangladesh’s ban of the bags, which clogged the city’s storm drains and caused severe floods, to Ireland’s 15-cent fee on plastic bags – which reduced plastic bag use by 90 percent in just three months.

San Francisco became the first city in the U.S. to ban plastic bags and place a 10-cent fee on paper bags, and now the City by the Bay’s state government has adopted a very similar law, prohibiting grocery stores, pharmacies and convenience stores from distributing plastic bags and charging customers 10 cents for a paper bag.

But right after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bag ban into law, plastics industry group American Progressive Bag Alliance began its efforts to overturn the legislation, launching a campaign to collect enough signatures to place a referendum on the law on the 2016 ballot.

While the plastics industry was successful in convincing Seattle voters to reject a plastic bag fee in 2008, “Big Plastic” may be facing an uphill battle against current California voters, who, according to a new poll from the LA Times and the University of Southern California, strongly support the plastic bag ban. Sixty percent of eligible voters who responded to the survey supported the new law, while only 35 percent were opposed.

With a third of Californians living in cities that already place restrictions on plastic bags, many residents of the Golden State are now simply used to plastic bag bans and fees on paper bags. And now that Californians see that the devastating predictions the plastics industry promised haven’t come true (job losses, fewer consumer choices, etc.), it’s going to be more difficult to sway voters to its side. The war over plastic bags carries on, but this time, the plastic industry may be fighting a losing battle.

Image credit: Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

11 responses

  1. We do not have a plastic bag litter problem in our community. The plastic bag ban was devastating to the poor SF residents. Search youtube for “Get It Together San Francisco photorikki” No plastic bags for p0op.

      1. Yes. It is devastating to the tourists also to smell feces and urine everywhere in SF. I guess you are used to it being an SF resident.

  2. “But right after California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bag ban into law, plastics industry group American Progressive Bag Alliance began its efforts to overturn the legislation, launching a campaign to collect enough signatures to place a referendum on the law on the 2016 ballot.”

    Sorry, but the SB 270 referendum is merely smoke and mirrors. No one is collecting signatures. It is just a show to make it look like people are being given a chance to put the SB 270 into the voting ballot. But no one is working behind that referendum to collect signatures. There is no statewide effort at all to collect signatures. American Progressive Bag Alliance should have the common sense to know that the single-use plastic bag ain’t coming back because this is worldwide. The plastic bag manufacturers should be gearing themselves to make the 2.25 mil thicker reusable PLASTIC bags that are bag-ban compliant which will be sold by the stores to the shoppers. .

    The stores will be replacing the single-use plastic bags that are usually 0.5 mil with reusable PLASTIC bags that are 2.25 mil and will charge the shopper for the reusable plastic bag. Plastic bags are here to stay, you just need to PAY.

    Ruffies 4-gallon plastic small plastic trash liners are 0.35 mil.

    Single-use plastic bags are 0.5 mil. (BEING BANNED)

    Hefty Kitchen Trash Liners are 0.9 mil.

    Hefty Black 30-gallon trash liners are 1.3 mil.

    Ziplock bags are 2 mil.

    Reusable PLASTIC bags are 2.25 mil. (BAG-BAN COMPLIANT)

    Plastic Sheeting are 3 mil.

    Search Google IMAGES for “2.25 mil plastic”

    One reusable PLASTIC bag is equivalent to 4-5 single-use plastic bag. So. if the store bags 10 items using 5 single-use plastic bags, the store can now bag those same10 items using 2 reusable plastic bags which is equivalent to 8-10 single-use plastic bags in thickness.

    Yup, we are saving the earth from plastics. This is not a plastic bag ban. It is a BYOB (Buy/Bring Your Own Bag) scam.

  3. The gyres are microscopic, turtle rescue groups don’t have any turtles harmed by a bag but all these points are mute. This is a buy your own bag bill. You can still use the t shirt bag you just buy it by the box. The store will sell you thicker plastic or paper. The other choice the reusable has to be washed and dried and remembered. Plus it even says in the bill that it has to last 131 times to equal the green footprint of one plastic bag. I can’t even get mine past a couple of washes. The store even keeps the fee. Nothing goes to pick up litter. The bag is only 0.06 percent of litter.
    People say if you buy it you won’t dump it. Take a look at any pile of litter. The only diffrence is now the consumer paid for it.

  4. As for the 60 percent that voted. Lol. Go to the site. The question was biased and they only polled around 1500 people. Not enough to come to a real conclusion. I do know when people vote on it, it is overturned. Like Oakland.

  5. There are currently many calls for an all out ban on the plastic carrier bag. However, we strongly believe that this is NOT the answer to reducing plastic waste in the environment, and suggest that instead governments should be looking at introducing incentives for those who ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Reverte’ – in the form of oxo-biodegradable carrier bags.

    Many studies have shown that the use of the checkout bag has an excellent carbon footprint when compared to many possible alternatives including paper sacks. The use of a high ratio of recycled material and CaCO3 make these bags less of an environmental burden than many people would have us believe!

    Using a checkout bag offers the consumer a convenient way of carrying their goods from the shop, and a bag which can be used for a second time, either to collate trash or recyclate. It has been shown in a number of studies that banning a checkout bags sends the sales of bin liners and trash bags through the roof, hardly a reduction in the use of plastics that such a ban is intended to achieve!

    Continuing to use checkout bags also gives the retailer the opportunity to have less primary packaging on their goods and to advertise their shop and/or goods to a wider audience.

    Reverte® when incorporated into the checkout bag at the point of manufacture ensures that if the bag at the end of its useful life is irresponsibly discarded, it will not pose a long term environmental problem or hazard.

    The formulation is devised to allow sufficient time for the bag to become part of a collection scheme and recycled into another application such as artificial timber planks, or for it carry out a second task such as waste bag then rapidly degrade.

    Once the initial stage of degradation has occurred the bag will have micro fragmented, transformed from long polymer chains to much smaller biodigestible materials. In a viable bacterial environment these small molecular species will be consumed, converting into CO2, H2O and biomass.

    No need to ban, or tax, or harm the environment.

    1. So sad that these so called environmentalists are backed by money to ban a free bag. They don’t care about the earth or even what bag you use. They only want no one to get a free bag.

  6. Sadly, I live in SF, or, an hour away from there and the law is applied to my place, I miss my plastic bag.

    1. but still, I think the plastic bag law a good idea, but I still see plastic bags flying around…

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