An eye for an i #434 Children

The birth of the plastic bag

An early plastic bag from the U.S. with instructions on how to use it!   | Photo Credit: jericl cat/ flickr

Plastic bags. They are everywhere, aren’t they? If you go shopping in the mall, you end up with a number of them. If you buy some clothes from a store, they are given to you in plastic bags. Picking up some groceries from the road-side vendor? They hand it to you in small plastic bags. There’s no escaping plastic bags, really. And very few even try to…

For an item that is now present everywhere, it has a rather short history. While plastics had been around in the first half of the 20th Century, it was only in the 1950s that a process to produce high-density polyethylene was first figured out.

How to best use it?

Once that came about, some products made of plastics started to get a move on. Yet, companies were still trying to find out how best to utilise the new substance at hand and maximise their advantage.

Among these companies was a Swedish company called Celloplast, which had sold cellulose film. Finding themselves with these plastics, the company invested resources to identify better ways of using and selling it.

Packaging purposes

It was in 1960 that Celloplast filed for a U.S. patent for “tubing for packaging purposes”. Designed by a team of three employees, their idea was to lay flat a tube of plastic and seal it at regular intervals in order to create the bottom of a bag. Left open at the top, anything could be placed inside these bags, which then could be packaged.

By the time this patent made its way in March 1962, Sten Gustaf Thulin, one of the three employees, was onto a better idea that would further enhance their existing one. Instead of just sealing the bottom and leaving the top open, Thulin realised that punching out part of the plastic tubes at the top would create handles for these bags.

Thulin’s “bag with handle”

Celloplast filed a patent for Thulin’s idea in July 1962. On April 27, 1965, they received the U.S. patent for “Bag with handle of weldable plastic material”. Thulin’s idea, what is now often called the “T-shirt plastic bag”, is the design behind every plastic bag that we see these days.

As the years went by, plastic bags started replacing every other type of bag in existence. By the end of the 1970s, 80% of the bag market in Europe was controlled by plastic bags. They were then introduced in the U.S., where they were marketed aggressively as superior to existing alternatives.

Solution turns problem

When Thulin came up with the idea, he was hoping to protect the environment as well. Back then, paper bags were the most popular type of carrier bags. For these paper bags, they not only had to cut down a lot of trees, but they also require more energy and water to produce, all of which have an impact on the planet we reside in.

Thulin believed that his plastic bags, which were both lighter than paper bags and also more energy efficient to make, would be used repeatedly by everyone. Speaking to BBC in 2019, Raoul Thulin, son of Sten Gustaf, said that “the idea that people would simply throw these away would be bizarre” to his dad. He also mentioned that his father always carried one of these folded up plastic bags in his pocket in order to make sure he could reuse the same bag.

Somewhere along the way, however, these plastic bags became so convenient, easily accessible, and cheap that people started throwing them away after a single use. Even though they weren’t supposed to be single-use products, they ended up being that way.

Use, reuse, mend, recycle

While plastic pollution is a huge problem and one to which we don’t have sound answers yet, simply ditching plastic to other alternatives isn’t a great idea either as they too can have adverse effects, including climate change. Research suggests that in order to be as environmentally friendly as a single-use plastic bag that gets recycled, a paper bag needs to be used at least three times. As for bags that are made of cotton, which is an intensive crop requiring a lot of water, it would have to be used 131 times to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag that is recycled.

Though all this might make the simple choice of selecting a bag seem daunting and confusing, an easy way to navigate it might be using the bag that you already have over and again. Do this for as long as you can and when the bag breaks, try to repair it. And when the bag reaches a stage where it can no longer be mended either, make sure that you recycle the bag. Remember, if we all take these simple steps, we will be protecting our Earth a little better.


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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 2:50:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/children/the-birth-of-the-plastic-bag/article34335062.ece

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