History of the world in 52 packs | 22. The plastic bag

From innocent local grocery shopping to global environmental concern, the plastic bag has had an interesting history which is summarised by Sun Branding Solutions’ Matthew Kensall.

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The introduction of the plastic bag charge on 5 October shone a light on one of the most common forms of packaging – one that, until recently, many of us would use on a daily basis.

Today’s plastic bags are a relatively recent innovation given that polyethylene used to make them was created in 1898. However it wasn’t until 1965 that Swedish company Celloplast came up with the design on which all modern plastic shopping bags are based. Its idea was that a tube of plastic, laid flat, could be sealed at regular intervals to create the bottom of a bag and left open at the top. When this idea was refined to include punched out handles, the so called ‘T-shirt plastic bag’ made from high-density polyethylene, or No. 2-type plastic, was born.

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The invention wasn’t an immediate success. US grocery stores and their customers preferred paper bags and it took years of plastics industry lobbying to convince stores of the case for plastic bags – namely that they were cheaper. They were also waterproof and stronger than paper bags and can carry 1,000 times their own weight.

By the end of 1985, 75% of supermarkets were offering plastic bags to their customers, and by 2009, 102 billion plastic bags were being used annually in the US alone. However concerns about their environmental impact gradually led to many countries introducing bans and restrictions on them. In 2002 Bangladesh banned them as they clogged storm drains and caused floods, and in the same year Ireland placed a 15-cent fee on plastic bags, reducing plastic bag use by 90% in just three months.

England and Wales are pretty late to the party, but it looks as if the charge will have a similar effect here. That said, there are other, more positive ways to inspire us to rethink the way we consume plastics. An alternative approach would be to give customers money off instead of charging them, as Tesco did with club card points, allowing customers who bring their own bags to earn money off their grocery shopping.

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Ultimately, plastic is a finite resource. So it’s crucial that we close the loop in terms of production and use. It’s great to see the money raised going to charitable causes, but with all the loopholes and exceptions that come with the plastic bag tax it’s more of a band-aid than a long-term solution. If we rewarded those who reuse, we’d be a step closer to valuing plastic bags and in turn, generate less waste.

Matthew Kensall, packaging development manager, Sun Branding Solutions

Matthew Kensall, packaging development manager, Sun Branding Solutions