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Ideas

  

Ideas

The plastic bag wars

Light, sturdy, amazingly cheap—and banned. How the humble sack became a victim of its own success.

On Wednesday, Nov. 14, the people of Brookline picked a side in what has become a high-stakes war with fronts around the world. Their allies in the fight: an international movement of activists dedicated to the eradication of a global menace. Their enemy: the plastic bag.

As of December 2013, cashiers at supermarkets and other large retailers in Brookline will no longer be allowed to provide disposable polyethylene bags to their customers at checkout, under threat of a punishing fine. Instead they’ll use bags made from compostable or marine degradable material, including paper, or encourage customers to bring reusable bags from home. The ban puts Brookline at the vanguard of the anti-plastic-bag movement, which has succeeded in getting similar ordinances passed in San Francisco and Los Angeles, as well as in China, India, and South Africa. It also represents what is arguably the biggest victory the movement has yet seen on the East Coast.

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Over the past 30 years, the plastic shopping bag has become a potent symbol of human consumption and carelessness. Flapping from trees, blowing against fences, bobbing squalidly in waterways, bags seem both insignificant and indestructible, an encapsulation of humankind’s fatal attachment to minor conveniences. According to one estimate, Americans use 100 billion plastic bags per year. It’s a number that horrifies environmentalists, who are concerned about the fossil fuels they’re made from and who calculate that each bag will continue to haunt the earth, before decomposing, for hundreds of years.

But there’s another way to see the plastic bag, and a reason to think a little harder about where the problem with it actually lies. To its fans in the plastics industry, and there are many, the supermarket shopping bag—or “T-shirt bag,” as it’s known in the business—is a triumph of cost-effective engineering. Weighing just a fraction of an ounce, it has convenient handles, water-resistant walls, and an astonishing ability to carry up to 2,000 times its own weight. From this point of view, the bag is a runaway success that has simply outpaced our ability to contain it.

“The polyethylene plastic bag is a miracle of technology to me,” said Diana Twede, a professor at the School of Packaging at Michigan State University and the co-editor of the journal Packaging Technology and Science. “I’m a fan of packaging history, and people in history would not be able to believe that you could make such a strong, light, thin type of material that would actually do some work.”

There’s a special irony to the fact that the latest skirmish in the plastic bag wars has erupted in Massachusetts, given that the bags’ origins can be traced to the work of engineers from communities such as Woburn and Gloucester—and that one of the intellectual nerve centers of the plastics industry is located at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

“The state of Massachusetts was like the Silicon Valley of plastics, in a lot of regards,” said Mark Steele, the CEO of Gloucester Engineering, a company that designed some of the earliest plastic-bag-making machines in the 1960s.

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For Steele, there is something sad about the people of Brookline launching an attack on a technology so intimately tied to their own local history. But as supporters of the ban prepare to make the case for a statewide ordinance—Marblehead Representative Lori Ehrlich has vowed to raise it on the floor of the Massachusetts Legislature in January—it’s unlikely that an appeal to regional pride is going to give them any pause. The plastic bag is both bigger and smaller than any one place, after all. And in many ways, that is the heart of the problem.

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There was a time when grocers would pack their customers’ purchases in paper cones, tying them at the bottom with a piece of string. Some took a different route, and spent their evenings gluing bags together out of paper. Everything changed in 1883, when a Philadelphia inventor by the name of Charles Stilwell patented an automatic paper bag machine that not only produced paper bags on its own, but fitted them with a square-shaped bottom that made it possible for baggers to stand them upright, leaving both their hands free for loading. Over time, customers came to expect that when they bought apples, or laundry detergent, or even a few pencils, they’d get a bag as well.

As paper sacks became a fixture at grocery store checkout lines across the United States, the seeds of their downfall were being sown here in Massachusetts, where a formidable plastics industry began to take root in the 1960s. As engineers discovered ways to make plastic thinner, stronger, and easier to produce in bulk, the material started being used to make trash bags, dry-cleaning bags, and packaging for bread. “The phones would be ringing off the hook with people wanting to buy bag-making machines,” said Bill Bode of Gloucester Engineering, which sold the machines to local manufacturers in Salem, Lynn, and Peabody, as well as to out-of-state companies like Union Carbide and Mobil Chemical.

Plastic bags in a tree.

moodboard/Corbis

Plastic bags in a tree.

Grocery bags were the next big market, and plastics makers came up with a design that included handles, giving them a distinct advantage over their paper counterparts. Ironically, plastics advocates like to point out, the introduction of plastic supermarket bags in the late 1970s was initially seen as a boon to the environment because they didn’t require any trees to be cut down. But customers were unimpressed: The material felt flimsy and the bags slumped over when placed in the trunk of a car. Perhaps for this reason, plastic bags first gained a foothold in cities, because the handles made them appealing to people who had to walk home—as opposed to drive—and then climb stairs to get to their apartments. But by the mid 1980s, the tide began to turn all over the country; by 1986, disposable plastic bags were said to account for fully a quarter of the market.

By that time, round one of the bag wars was well underway, with the paper industry waging an aggressive public relations campaign, with representatives giving quotes to newspapers about how the paper bag ought to be seen as a token of American culture, alongside the flag and apple pie. More practical concerns were raised as well. A spokesman for the International Paper Co. said in 1983: “We’ve heard from grocers who say people complained of plastic bags bumping into their legs.”

None of this proved to be enough to hold back the plastic bag, which wove its way into the American household. Though they never came to be seen as classy—high-end retailers mostly stuck with paper—disposable plastic bags became a fact of life. People realized that you could always use a few bags around the house, whether to contain dirty diapers and dog poop, or carry wet swimsuits from the beach, or line wastebaskets, or pack lunch for work.

But perhaps the biggest reason for the success plastic bags have enjoyed in the United States—by 1996, they made up about 80 percent of the market—has been their low cost, with some estimating that paper bags cost four times as much to produce. This is in part because of the minuscule amount of raw material required to make a plastic bag, but it’s also because they take up less space, meaning you need a lot fewer trucks and fuel to transport them. That difference translates to massive savings for retailers: As long as shoppers expect a fresh bag every time they buy something, a big chain of supermarkets can end up saving hundreds of thousands of dollars per year by supplying them with plastic instead of paper.

Today, environmentalists estimate that the world consumes a trillion disposable plastic bags every year. So extraordinary is the plastic bag’s success that the Guinness Book of World Records has named it “the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world.”

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The anti-plastic-bag movement scored its first big victory in 2002, when officials in Bangladesh banned them because they were found to be clogging storm drains and causing floods. That same year, Ireland tried to stem its litter problem by imposing a tax on plastic bags, leading to a dramatic reduction in their use. As people began to realize just how many plastic bags were out there—and how uniquely suited they were to fly through the air, float out to sea, and sit in landfills for centuries—the movement gained momentum. Bans and tax programs were implemented around the world over the course of the following decade, including in Asia, Europe, and Africa. In 2007, San Francisco became the first American city to enact a ban; it was followed shortly thereafter by Los Angeles and, earlier this year, by Seattle.

These measures have been met with extreme resistance from the plastics industry, as well as some packaging experts, like Michigan State’s Diana Twede. “People think the paper bag is environmentally friendly because it looks like nature and it comes from a tree,” said Twede. In reality, she added, “You’ve got all kinds of energy that goes into making a tree into a paper bag—lots more energy than it takes to make a plastic bag out of petrochemicals.” The bans we’ve seen passed around the world, and now in Brookline, said Donna Dempsey, a spokeswoman for a trade group called the American Progressive Bag Alliance, are nothing but “feel-good legislation which has not worked to reduce litter.”

It’s perfectly true, as people in the plastics industry remind us, that plastic bags are reusable, recyclable, and take up very little space. But it’s also true that they’re so cheap, and so profuse—think of buying a toothbrush and watching as the cashier double-bags it—that we don’t really treat them as objects we need to think about. “If my household is any indication, probably about 10 percent of them get reused at most,” said Twede. “It’s too bad more of them aren’t recycled....But they’re so cheap and so thin that it feels like they’re not worth recycling.”

Or, as Robert Malloy of UMass Lowell put it, “They’re a problem because people can afford to throw them away.”

The trajectory of the plastic bag, in this light, should perhaps be seen as a cautionary tale: It’s possible to build a tool too ideally suited to our needs. A ban on plastic bags is not an indictment of the bags themselves; as Clint Richmond, one of the Brookline residents who pushed for the new law, said, “This is not a ‘bags are evil’ thing.” Rather, it’s an admission that if an object is sufficiently cheap, effective, and plentiful, we simply cannot resist abusing it.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.

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