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Why do grocery stores hand out single use plastic bags?

  • 4 min read

Single use plastic bags have become a common sight in most grocery stores, but few people know the story behind their invention. Why did this happen and what are the factors that contribute to the continuation of this practice, despite the negative impact of plastic bags on the environment?

In the early 1980s, American grocery stores began to switch from using paper bags to using plastic bags. The reason for this change was simple – plastic bags were cheaper and easier to use than paper bags.  

But what led to the invention of the single use plastic bags? 

In 1933, Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, was created by accident at a chemical plant in Northwich, England.

In the early 1960s, Swedish engineer, Sten Gustaf Thulin, invented the lightweight plastic shopping bag that we use today. Thulin developed a method of forming a simple one-piece bag by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tube of plastic for the packaging company Celloplast of Norrköping, Sweden. Thulin's design produced a simple, strong bag with a high load-carrying capacity, and was patented worldwide by Celloplast in 1965. It was later reported by his son, Raoul, that Sten believed his durable plastic bags would not be single-use but rather, long-term use and could replace paper bags, which required chopping of trees. 

In 1979, already controlling 80 per cent of the bag market in Europe, plastic bags began to spread to the United States and other countries around the world. Plastic companies began to aggressively market their single-use product as superior to paper and reusable bags.

Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the United States, switched to plastic bags in their stores in 1982. Single-use plastic bags were cheaper than alternatives, and more stores began to follow Safeway and Kroger’s switch. From the mid-1980s onwards, plastic bags became common for carrying daily groceries from the store to vehicles and homes throughout the developed world.

In 1992, Sonoco Products Company of Hartsville, SC patented the "self-opening polyethylene bag stack." The main innovation of this redesign is that the removal of a bag from the rack opens the next bag in the stack via a minimal adhesive placed between the bags on a tab at the center-top. This design and later variations upon it are commonplace through modern grocers, as they are space-efficient and customer-friendly.

The low cost and convenience afforded by the self-opening polyethylene bag stack drove US grocers to continue to provide their customers with “free” bags. 

What is the environmental impact of single use plastic bags?

Plastic bags start out as fossil fuels and end up as deadly waste in landfills and the ocean. The world uses a shocking amount of plastic bags, but this problem is extreme in the United States: 

  • Worldwide, one million plastic bags are consumed every minute.
  • Americans use 100 billion plastic bags a year, which require 12 million barrels of oil to manufacture.
  • Americans use an average of 365 plastic bags per person per year. As a point of reference, people in Denmark use an average of only four plastic bags per year
  • It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to degrade in a landfill. Unfortunately, the bags don't break down completely but instead photo-degrade, becoming microplastics that absorb toxins and continue to pollute the environment.

Because plastic bags are so durable, this makes them a concern for the environment. They will not break down easily and as a result are very harmful to wildlife. Each year millions of discarded plastic shopping bags end up as plastic waste litter. The same properties that have made plastic bags so commercially successful and ubiquitous—namely their low weight and resistance to degradation—have also contributed to their proliferation in the environment. Due to their durability, plastic bags can take centuries to decompose.

Birds often mistake shredded plastic bags for food, filling their stomachs with toxic debris. For hungry sea turtles, it's nearly impossible to distinguish between jellyfish and floating plastic shopping bags. Fish eat thousands of tons of plastic a year, transferring it up the food chain to bigger fish and marine mammals. Plastic bags were found to constitute a significant portion of the floating marine debris in the waters around southern Chile. Microplastics are also consumed by people through food and in the air. It’s estimated that globally, people consume the equivalent of a credit card of plastic every week, and it’s expected that there will be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050.

On land, plastic bags are one of the most prevalent types of litter in inhabited areas. Large buildups of plastic bags can clog drainage systems and contribute to flooding. Littering is often a serious problem in developing countries, where trash collection infrastructure is less developed than in wealthier nations.

The number of plastic grocery bags disposed of in the U.S. apart from the rest of the world is a number that is difficult to comprehend. It’s more important than ever that we find solutions to address this growing problem. BRINGIT Bags is proud to be part of the solution with our innovative shopping bag system that was designed as a plastic bag alternative.  We make reusable shopping bags that are the only bags on the market made from sustainably grown tree fiber. The fiber is made from beechwood and eucalyptus trees which are naturally regenerative, and the production process has no waste.  So much better than plastic and also better than cotton because the production has a far superior environmental footprint.  The best part is that these eco-friendly reusable grocery bags is they will never end up in a landfill or in the ocean because at the end of their life (after hundreds of uses and washes), the bags are home compostable and marine biodegradable. 

We designed these reusable shopping bags to meet the needs of shoppers – extra wide straps, soft and durable material for comfort, and flexibility that allows for compact and organized storage between shopping trips. They are the perfect plastic bag alternative.