Bags — Then Came Plastic

Plastic Shopping Bag with Pink PatternPlastic bags are used for gathering, packaging, carrying and storing stuff. According to SPI, a plastic industry association, about 100,000,000,000 plastic bags are sold annually around the world. Styles abound from no-frills plain plastic bags to upscale bags with patterns, graphics, reinforced bottoms, and fancy handles.

A Few Plastic Bag Types

Plastic bags come in assorted types. For our purposes, we’ll focus on the single-use plastic bags people use for shopping and transporting groceries.

  • Grocery Produce / Bulk Bin / Meat Bag —  shoppers fill with lettuce, bulk oatmeal, or pork chops at the grocery market.
  • Plastic T-Shirt Bag BlueT-shirt Bag (so named because it resembles a sleeveless undershirt) — non-sealable sack with handles, also known as grocery or checkout bag.
  • Merchandise Bag — similar to a T-shirt bag with handles die cut into the bag, sometimes handles are reinforced (patch handle).
  • High-end Shopping Bag — may have hard or cardboard bottom, upscale handles, colors and graphics, some shoppers view as decorative or status symbol (stores benefit from “walking advertisement”).

Plastic Bag Materials

A variety of materials and manufacturing processes are used to make plastic bags for different uses (produce bag vs. shopping bag). A few materials are listed below:

Polypropylene is a plastic derived from petroleum or natural gas.

  • Plastic Grocery Produce BagsLDPE (low-density polypropylene): offers clarity and flexibility, used to make grocery produce bags, food storage bags, and garbage bags.
  • HDPE (high-density polypropylene): is more rigid and less permeable than LDPE, used for grocery bags and other retail bags.
  • LLDPE (linear low-density polypropylene): has higher tensile strength, higher impact, and puncture resistance than LDPE, used for shopping bags.

Bioplastics are made from biomass sources, like vegetable fats and oils and cornstarch, they are often used for vegetable packaging and as organic waste bags.

Plastic Bag History Highlights

Apparently, our love affair with plastic bags began around the mid to late 1950s.

  • 1954 – Robert W. Vergobbi patented zipper storage bags
  • 1957 – baggies and sandwich bags on a roll are first introduced
  • 1965 – Sten Gustaf Thulin’s one-piece “t-shirt” plastic shopping bag design is patented by Celloplast
  • 1966 – plastic produce bags on a roll are introduced in grocery markets
  • 1974 – department store retailers begin to switch to plastic merchandise bags
  • 1977plastic grocery bag is introduced as an alternative to paper bags
  • 1982 – supermarket chains replace paper bags with plastic bags with handles
  • 1990 – on-site plastic bag recycling collection begins at grocery markets
  • 1996 – four of five grocery bags used are plastic
  • 2011 – over 80% of all bags used are plastic bags

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Bags — From the Beginning to Paper

Woven Basket with Lid for Carrying StuffIn the Beginning

From the earliest time of civilization, we needed to carry stuff around. Our hands had limited capacity so we developed ways of carrying stuff by creating bags and other containers out of animal hides or plant materials, and later from woven fabrics. Pottery and glass vessels were useful for carrying liquids and other items.

Back then bags and containers were made to fit their purpose and to last a long time. We had to actually make them by hand using devices which we also had to make (like an awl for piercing holes in a hide). Have you ever tried to poke a hole in a piece of leather — it isn’t easy. These early bags and containers were meant to be reused again and again and possibly passed down to the next generation.

Let’s narrow our focus to bags.

What Exactly is a Bag?

The word bag can mean many different things. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition, the word bag is defined as follows (partial list) :

  1. a nonrigid container made of fabric, paper, leather, etc., with an opening at the top that can be closed; sack or pouch
  2. a piece of hand luggage; suitcase
  3. a woman’s handbag or purse

For this and related posts, we’ll stick with definition 1 and focus on bags individuals use to shop and carry stuff around.

Enter the Paper Bag

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we could now use machines to manufacture bags from other materials, like paper. Paper bags may have marked the beginning of the shift to single-use bags.

Paper Bag History Highlights (with a little about shopping thrown in)

  • Paper Grocery Bag1852 – Francis Wolle invented and patented a machine to make paper bags.
  • 1871 – Margaret E. Knight was awarded a patent for a device she invented several years earlier that cut, folded and glued paper to create square bottoms for paper bags (she is often considered the mother of the grocery bag).
  • 1883 – Charles Stilwell was awarded a patent for a square-bottom bag with pleated sides, his “self-opening sack” or S.O.S. could hold more items, folded flat for storage, and could easily be opened and filled.
  • Paper Shopping Bag with Handles1912 – Walter H. Deubner created the first shopping bag with handles (the reinforced bottom and handles made it easier for his customers to buy and carry more purchases), by 1915 he had patented his product and was selling over a million shopping bags a year.
  • 1916 – Clarence Saunders opened the Piggly Wiggly, the first “self-service grocery store” where customers selected items from shelves themselves and checked out at the front of the store, he patented his concepts in 1917. Customers were likely carrying their purchases home in paper bags.
  • 1930’s – with the birth of the America supermarket (combining dry goods, meat, and produce in one location), demand for Stilwell’s paper bags skyrocketed. Their versatility, strength, and low cost made them first a nationwide then worldwide phenomenon.

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