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A Brief History of the Plastic Bag

Alexis Petru headshotWords by Alexis Petru
Energy & Environment
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California 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