Plastic Bags

When they first hit supermarkets in 1977, check-out clerks and baggers everywhere were stopped, tapped on the shoulder, or accosted by their bosses. The new, lightweight plastic bags had arrived, and were about to change a lot more than just how we carried our groceries.

Recycling bags in 1972. (Image by Jim Olive, U.S. National Archives, Fort Smith, 1972)

Alternative plastic bag recycling. (Image by Jim Olive, U.S. National Archives, Fort Smith, 1972)

They came in huge reams and were shipped in cardboard boxes—a very similar material to the then-reigning bag of the day: the stout, sturdy ones made of brown paper. The new shimmering bags were a hit. But the old champs held on: crisp, serrated along the opening, just dying to be brought home with a carton of OJ and the hopes of being reincarnated as a school book cover.

The instructions were simple: “Say ‘paper or plastic.’” To everyone. Every man, woman, and child donning big late 70s hair and bad combinations of plaid. It’s almost existential when viewed societally. As if a coming conundrum were quietly seeping into everyday life.

It’s one we face today, spurred on by growing commerce, capitalism, shipping, and the single use commodity market that has developed over the last decades. 2012 has come and gone, and despite the second Back to the Future movie we don’t have hoverboards, to say the least of flying cars. Just the same, its hard to imagine clerks and shoppers back in ’77 considering some of the numbers, phrases and facts that have become commonplace.

In 2013, several US cities have banned plastic bags. On the other side, there’s the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, highlighting the dangers of replacing plastic with paper. But fretting seriously over the question of paper vs. plastic is much like fighting about which side of your bread to put the butter on. Paper bags are environmentally taxing on the front end, requiring absurd amounts of natural resources (such as the water to paper pulp ratio of 400 gallons to 1). Plastic bags are more taxing on the back end, causing widespread, lasting litter, especially in the sea. They’re even found in the stomachs of cows in Ethiopia.

When the paper bag was introduced by Francis Wolle in 1852, there was no such thing as a supermarket. By the time the plastic bag showed up, large scale stores were common, and small stores were on the decline. Now it seems we’re reaching back to both, at least in part, as farmer’s markets grow in number and big stores are the way of the land. We’ve managed to come around to the notion of a sturdier, more capable bag – like a canvas one – the type that was used before there was ever a question of paper or plastic. We’ve affixed the word “reusable” to it, as if it’s a new idea.

These reusable carryalls are made of canvas, cotton, denim, and nylon. They’re less convenient in terms of not being in the store waiting for us, but they hold more, are handsome, and more comfortable to carry. And though they’re not environmentally unblemished, they are a far more sustainable solution than what we’ve been using for decades. In the end, some of the things we carry change, and some stay the same. It’s the way we carry them that seems to say the most.

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