Take a look around outside after a storm and you’ll see them, clinging to the lathe of a garden fence like barnacles to a ship’s hull – those sad, indigent, plastic shopping bags. They’re everywhere, bouncing along the roadside, hung up in the branches of your backyard tree, even melted and tangled around the undercarriage of your car. Once revered for their strength and amazingly useful handles, these marvels of modern shopping are now the scourge of environmental political correctness.
With humble beginnings in 1950s Sweden, the modern plastic shopping bag was the creation of engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin who developed the simple, one-piece bag for Celloplast, the company which patented the design in 1965. Popularity of the product grew rapidly, for a time even knocking paper bags into relative obscurity.
Never again would husbands need worry about earning a night in the doghouse after losing a gallon of milk to the pavement when it crashed through the bottom of a wet paper sack. But, it was that set of wonderfully brilliant handles that really endeared the bags to shoppers. Since the dawn of time, mothers everywhere have struggled on shopping trips to juggle groceries and family.
With plastic bags, Mom now had the ability to carry half a dozen fully loaded bags on her arms while clutching Junior in one hand and the dog’s leash in the other. Her world now under complete control, at least for one brief moment, thanks to a simple pair of parallel holes in a plastic tube. Once the groceries were put away, she could even re-use them to line the bathroom wastebasket with a water-proof bag that fit both the can and her household budget.
There was no doubt the plastic shopping bag was truly a miracle of modern commerce. By 1982, most major grocery chains, including Kroger, began replacing paper shopping bags with plastic citing cost savings and customer preference. Sadly, however, as with most other success stories, rival jealousy led to ridicule and scrutiny, mostly from operatives of the paper bag industry determined to unseat the plastic bag from its world-wide fame.
By the 1990s, world ecologists became increasingly vocal about plastic’s potentially destructive effects on the environment. Soon, the plastic shopping bag became an innocent by-stander, caught up in the ever increasing fight between good and evil, liberal and conservative, environmentalist and capitalist - or whoever was paying the most lobbyists. More than ever, environmental groups were touting the need for more extensive use of recyclable materials in consumer goods.
Almost overnight, the plastic shopping bag became the poster child for everything wrong with the environment as pundits heatedly debated their recyclability on cable news and in fiercely negative op-eds. As usual, the critics had it all wrong because plastic shopping bags were every bit as recyclable as their paper counterparts, but were, in a way, victims of their own success.
As it turned out, the very innovations that made plastic shopping bags so powerful in the supermarket were like Kryptonite to the sorting machines used in recycling. When put through, they bound up the machinery and left it jammed and inert, and the cost to overcome that problem outweighed the benefits.
For years, rumors of a plastic bag uprising have permeated the media, suggesting that millions of these poor, trodden-down bags were massing a resistance in landfills all over America. There, they waited silently, collectively preparing to strike back against their opposition by refusing to decompose, even over thousands of years.
Sadly, an empty threat, since the structure of a landfill is meant to keep the refuse dry and stable, limiting degradation. Nothing is intended to fully decompose; not paper, not food, not plastic … nothing. In fact, newspapers buried in the 1960s have recently been exhumed intact and readable.
Perhaps one day, the full truth of their story will be exposed and plastic shopping bags will regain their once proud position at the end of the checkout. But for now, these bags exist as second-class totes, drifting like tumbleweeds on the wind, dancing their lament of a time when they were kings of the market.
Gery L. Deer is an independent columnist and business writer based in Jamestown, Ohio. More at www.gerydeer.com.