Before we get into this, let’s get something straight - plastic bags are bad for the environment. If not recycled, which they often aren’t, they slowly decompose in our environment and release toxins. Animals ingest the toxins and we eat the animals. Not good for anyone involved.
It’s also important to note that paper bags aren’t environmental saviours either. This is ironic, as most cities and countries that have banned plastic bags simply replace them with paper. Our best bet is to abolish both options and use reusable bags that are made from renewable resources and can be recycled.
The first plastic bag was developed during the 1960s by a team that included a Swedish engineer named Sten Gustav Thulin. The bag was essentially a tube of plastic sealed at one end while open at the other. Smart, but still pretty silly - it didn’t have handles. Thulin recognised this and redesigned the bag to have handles at the open end. Very smart. The design has endured to this day and is aptly known as the “t-shirt plastic bag.”
The original design submitted for patent approval.
The stunningly simple design wasn’t to be truly recognised until later, however. The turning point was when ExxonMobil was able to produce its own bags after pursuing patents on polyethylene packaging in the late 1970s. In the next few years, Safeway and Kroger, America’s largest supermarket chains, adopted the new technology. And by 1985, 75 percent of supermarkets had plastic bags on offer – a late but rapid rise to consumerist stardom.
An important thing to remember is that the prevailing attitude towards plastic bags at the time wasn’t of a negative nature. These things were marvels! So they were marketed as such. Check out the “multiple uses” of this thing:
Source: jericl cat/Flickr
It’s no wonder they were viewed with such appeal, with their ability to carry 1,000 times their weight, resistance to water and breakage, and possessing a myriad of uses post-shop. And from the perspective of the retailer, it was a no-brainer. Each bag cost around one cent, compared to the four cents that a stodgy and poor-performing paper bag would set you back. Not to mention the weight and space that paper bags took up.
With the increasing and very much warranted awareness around the negative effects of the plastic shopping bag, it’s likely we will be bidding it farewell altogether in the not-too-distant future. But let’s not forget the ingenious design and engineering that brought this product to life, because it is exactly that kind of thinking that will provide us with an equally functional but less environmentally detrimental alternative.