The single-use plastic shopping bag replaced the paper bag beginning in 1979. It was promoted as an improvement on the brown-paper bag because it was cheaper. It was not widely accepted by consumers but careful marketing convinced the public that plastic was better for the environment. Even though plastic bags don’t require the “killing of trees,” they haven’t been a save-all and many cities have enacted bag bans. Some chose to ban plastic bags, while others chose to ban single use bags altogether.
Brown Paper Bags
You wouldn’t know it but U.S. consumers didn’t always use paper bags – people used to carry their own bags to and from the store. In 1852 however, a schoolteacher developed a method to mass-produce paper bags, convenience overcame sense and people stopped carrying their own. Within a few years, paper bags were expected to be in every store. In 1912, corded handles were added and the “shopping bag,” used in designer stores became commonplace.
First introduced in 1979, the single-use plastic bag went nation wide when Kroger and Safeway grocery chains started offering them in 1982. Acceptance was not universal. People in the suburbs far preferred to stick with paper because the bags could stand up during transport, while people in the cities preferred plastic as the handles made them easier to carry. By the end of 1985, most grocery stores had both and a consumer at the checkout stand was offered “paper or plastic.” Many consumers were committed enough to their choice that they would become angry if given the wrong type.
Cost Forces Choice
Despite customer preference, cost won out over preference. Plastic bags were cheaper to purchase and easier to store. Most stores began defaulting to plastic, allowing paper only if the customer demanded it. Other stores stopped carrying paper at all. Paper will decay, plastic does not. Some consumers pointed right to the plastic itself as an environmental concern but the plastic bag was not only cheaper, proponents said it was stronger, reusable, and recyclable.
Plastic bags had been introduced by ExxonMobile and every objection raised to plastic was overcome by careful marketing with studies performed to show how great plastic is and how bad paper bags are. The oil company was a master at manipulating public perception and had a vested interest in selling the bags. Claims that the bags could be recycled were supported by the introduction of multi-product recycling bins in many cities. Large grocery stores placed recycling barrels at the front of the stores, urging consumers to bring back their bags.
Not So Fast
Even though there was widespread promotion of bag recycling, it quickly became apparent that plastic really was a problem. Recycling wasn’t available in every locale and, as a nation, the U.S. was not ready to recycle plastic in large volume. Even when consumers carefully sorted plastic, paper, aluminum and glass, many recycling programs didn’t have a facility to send it to. Most recycling facilities that did accept plastic, didn’t recycle it themselves. Instead, they bundled it up and sent it to China to be used in manufacturing of consumer goods.
After the Beijing Olympics, China was subjected to severe scrutiny on air pollution – clearly seen on the television. The Chinese government subsequently put up a “green wall” and severely restricted the type and amount of plastic they would allow. Not only were most consumers still throwing out their plastic bags, recycling programs were taking them directly to the landfill, filling it up.
Plastic has cost cities, counties and utility districts billions upon billions of dollars. Loose plastic bags blow around, get caught in trees, accumulate in drainage areas and clog the sewage system. The city of New York reported that separately from regular garbage pickup, it was disposing of 1,700 tons of loose plastic bags every week.
Return to Paper
Some in the anti-plastic crowd have advocated a return to the brown bags – plastic is petroleum-based, toxic in production, impossible to destroy. That has been met with statistics on the carbon footprint of a paper grocery bag which is larger and thicker. It requires more cargo space and therefore more trucks to haul it. In addition to the tree-killing, paper production is responsible for mass output of toxic wastewater, chemical use and pollution caused by fuel emissions. The conflict is ongoing.
Enormous garbage patches, mainly of plastic, have formed in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans - the biggest is twice the size of Texas. Many countries have banned the use of plastic, some imposing criminal fines for violation. Whether out of true environmental concern – or due to economic challenges presented by disposal, cities all over the U.S. have also enacted bag bans and many states have followed.
Over 33 states and hundreds of municipalities have enacted or plan to enact plastic bag regulations. Some have implemented 5 or 10 cent bag fees for every new plastic bag a consumer gets. Some have banned plastic bags but allow paper bags, some for a fee. A few locales have enacted a complete bag ban, prohibiting any new, single-use bags from being issued. This can be an inconvenient place to be, if you have a cart full of groceries and didn’t bring your reusable bags.