Plastic bags and their history

DOWNEY - Last week, in the initial article in this series, we discussed the physical properties of plastic carryout bags, including the unfortunate fact that their being "recyclable" does not actually mean they're recyclable. ("Plastic Bags and Freedom," The Downey Patriot, 8/4/11).This begins to suggest that the story of the plastic carryout bag might not be as simple as the common "use 'em, reuse 'em, recycle 'em, end of story" point of view implies. The history of the plastic carryout bag and its predecessors is in fact a fascinating indicator of just how complex an issue the plastic bag has become. The specific type of bag in question, referred to in the industry as a "T-shirt bag," was patented by a Swedish company in 1965. However, in 1977, Mobil Oil, now ExxonMobil, overturned the patent, and by 1982 American supermarkets began offering these plastic T-shirt grocery bags as an alternative to paper. The famous phrase "Paper or Plastic?" saw its heyday in the first decade of what became a transformation to 80% plastic versus only 20% paper bags by 1996. By 2001, less than 20 years after wide distribution of plastic bags began, annual global consumption was estimated to be between 500 billion and 1 trillion bags per year. The plastic grocery bag had become, in a word, a juggernaut. How had the world survived without them? Well, in the United States, paper grocery bags had evolved from patented inventions beginning prior to the Civil War, and these square-bottomed pleated bags became normative with the proliferation of supermarkets in the 1920's and 30's. Their antecedents, the corner grocery store and before it the "dry goods" store and the general store, going all the way back to the trading post, did not require such mass-produced convenience. Ironically, shoppers in that era took home the groceries in their own containers, even if that might only have meant the back of the horse-drawn buggy. Curiously, "paper or plastic" was never an option in Europe, because the paper bag had never become a part of the culture of grocery shopping in any of the western European countries. From Finland to Italy, shoppers provided their own bags. Vestiges of that tradition continue, even with the advent of European supermarket chains, such as the German Aldi chain, which encourages customers to provide their own bags, but makes other bags available, for a price. In fact, the Aldi chain operates in 31 Eastern states in the U.S., where they encourage customers "to reuse and recycle bags," but sell "paper, plastic, or insulated bags for a very nominal charge." (This, by the way, is not possible in California, but we'll return to that point later.) Moreover, a separate Aldi entity is the corporate owner of Trader Joe's, which offers rebates to shoppers who bring their own bags. To summarize, we have discovered that American shoppers originally brought their own containers prior to the advent of paper and plastic bags, and we have also determined that in Europe there has never been a tradition of grocery stores providing "free" bags of any kind to their customers. We have not yet addressed government regulation, nor have we examined the questions of whether or not plastic carryout bags are in fact free and harmless, as is widely opined. To those questions we'll return in subsequent articles. Lars Clutterham is a Downey resident and charter member of the city of Downey's Green Task Force and Downey Chamber of Commerce's Green Committee.

********** Published: August 11, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 17