Plastic shopping bag

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A German plastic shopping bag, freshly folded (left) and used (right)

Plastic shopping bags, carrier bags, or plastic grocery bags are a type of shopping bag made from various kinds of plastic. In use by consumers worldwide since the 1960s,[1] these bags are sometimes called single-use bags, referring to carrying items from a store to a home. However, reuse for storage or trash is common, and modern plastic shopping bags are increasingly recyclable or biodegradable. In recent decades, numerous countries have introduced legislation restricting the sale of plastic bags, in a bid to reduce littering and pollution.[2][3][4][5]

Some reusable shopping bags are made of plastic film, fibers, or fabric.


American and European patent applications relating to the production of plastic shopping bags can be found dating back to the early 1950s, but these refer to composite constructions with handles fixed to the bag in a secondary manufacturing process. The modern lightweight shopping bag is the invention of Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin.[1] In the early 1960s, 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.

Celloplast was a well-established producer of cellulose film and a pioneer in plastics processing. The company's patent position gave it a virtual monopoly on plastic shopping bag production, and the company set up manufacturing plants across Europe and in the US. However, other companies saw the attraction of the bag, too, and the US petrochemicals group Mobil overturned Celloplast's US patent in 1977.

The Dixie Bag Company of College Park, Georgia, owned and operated by Jack W. McBride, was one of the first companies to exploit this new opportunity to bring convenient products to all major shopping stores. The Dixie Bag Company, along with similar firms such as Houston Poly Bag and Capitol Poly, was instrumental in the manufacturing, marketing and perfecting of plastic bags in the 1980s. Kroger, a Cincinnati-based grocery chain, began to replace its paper shopping bags with plastic bags in 1982,[6] and was soon followed by its rival, Safeway.[6]

Without its plastic bag monopoly, Celloplast's business went into decline, and the company was split up during the 1990s. The Norrköping site remains a plastics production site, however, and is now the headquarters of Miljösäck, a manufacturer of waste sacks manufactured from recycled polyethylene.[7]

From the mid-1980s onwards, plastic bags became common for carrying daily groceries from the store to vehicles and homes throughout the developed world. As plastic bags increasingly replaced paper bags, and as other plastic materials and products replaced glass, metal, stone, timber and other materials, a packaging materials war erupted, with plastic shopping bags at the center of highly publicized disputes.


Although few peer-reviewed studies or government surveys have provided estimates for global plastic bag use, environmental activists estimate that between 500 billion and 1 trillion plastic bags are used each year worldwide.[8] In 2009, the United States International Trade Commission reported that 102 billion plastic bags are used annually in the United States alone.[9]

Manufacture and composition

Traditional plastic bags are usually made from polyethylene, which consists of long chains of ethylene monomers. Ethylene is derived from natural gas and petroleum. The polyethylene used in most plastic shopping bags is either low-density (resin identification code 4) or, more often, high-density (resin identification code 2).[10] Color concentrates and other additives are often used to add tint to the plastic. Plastic shopping bags are commonly manufactured by blown film extrusion.[9]

Biodegradable materials

Some modern bags are made of vegetable-based bioplastics, which can decay organically and prevent a build-up of toxic plastic bags in landfills and the natural environment. Bags can also be made from degradable polyethylene film or from polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable polymer derived from lactic acid.[11] However, most degradable bags do not readily decompose in a sealed landfill,[12] and represent a possible contaminant to plastic recycling operations. In general, biodegradable plastic bags need to be kept separate from conventional plastic recycling systems.

Environmental concerns

According to Vincent Cobb, a manufacturer of reusable bags, each year millions of discarded plastic shopping bags end up as litter in the environment when improperly disposed of.[13] 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.[13]

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, as occurred in Bangladesh in 1988 and 1998[14] and almost annually in Manila.[15][16] Littering is often a serious problem in developing countries, where trash collection infrastructure is less developed than in wealthier nations.[17]

Plastic bags were found to constitute a significant portion of the floating marine debris in the waters around southern Chile in a study conducted between 2002 and 2005.[18] If washed out to sea, plastic bags can be carried long distances by ocean currents, and can strangle marine animals.

Reduction, reuse and recycling

Some large store chains have banned plastic shopping bags such as Whole Foods in the U.S.[19] and IKEA in the U.S. and the U.K.[20]

Heavy-duty plastic shopping bags are suitable for reuse as reusable shopping bags. Lighter weight bags are often reused as trash bags or to pick up pet feces. All types of plastic shopping bag can be recycled into new bags where effective collection schemes exist.

By the mid-1900s, the expansion of recycling infrastructure in the United States yielded a 7% annual rate of plastic bag recycling. This corresponded to more than 800,000,000 pounds (360,000 tonnes) of bags and plastic film being recycled in 2007 alone.[21] Each ton of recycled plastic bags saves the energy equivalent of 11 barrels of oil, although most bags are produced from natural-gas-derived stock.[22] In light of a 2002 Australian study showing that more than 60% of bags are reused as bin liners and for other purposes,[23] the 7% recycling rate accounts for 17.5% of the plastic bags available for recycling.

According to the UK's Environment Agency, 76% of British carrier bags are reused.[24] A survey by the American Plastics Counsel found that 90% of Americans answer yes to the question "Do you or does anyone in your household ever reuse plastic shopping bags?" [25] UK Environment Agency published a review of supermarket carrier bags and compares energy usage of current styles of bag.[26]

Bag legislation

Several countries, regions, and cities have enacted legislation to ban or severely reduce the use of disposable plastic shopping bags. Outright bans have been introduced in some countries,[5] notably China, which banned very thin plastic bags nationwide in 2008.[2] Several other countries impose a tax at the point of sale.

See also

  • Photodegradation, the Process through which chemicals decompose when exposed to light


  1. 1.0 1.1 European Plastics News: Plastic T-Shirt Carrier Bag (1965). 26 September 2008. Retrieved 17 April 2012.
  2. 2.0 2.1 "China Says Its Plastic Bag Ban Has Saved 4.8 Million Tonnes Of Oil". Business Insider. 21 June 2012. Retrieved 15 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Scott Sincoff (1 July 2012). "Los Angeles City Council OKs Plastic Bag Ban". ENN. Retrieved 2 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "A short history of plastic bag laws in California". Plastic Bag Laws Organisation. Retrieved 3 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Mauritania bans plastic bag use". BBC. 2 January 2013. Retrieved 4 January 2013.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 "It's Not My Bag, Baby!" Natural Resource Defense Council. 2003. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
  7. "Climate smart waste sacks and bags made from recycled post consumer polyethylene". Miljösäck. Retrieved 28 November 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Joan Lowy (20 July 2004). "Plastic left holding the bag as environmental plague". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 1 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 U.S. International Trade Commission (May 2009). "Polyethylene Retail Carrier Bags from Indonesia, Taiwan, and Vietnam" (PDF). p. IV-7. Retrieved 9 October 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. "US Life Cycle Inventory Database". US Department of Energy National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  11. "Notes from the Packaging Laboratory: Polylactic Acid – An Exciting New Packaging Material" (PDF). University of Florida. Retrieved 14 February 2015.
  12. "Biodegradable plastic bags carry more ecological harm than good". The Guardian. 18 June 2009. Retrieved 7 June 2012.
  13. 13.0 13.1 John Roach (2003). "Are Plastic Grocery Bags Sacking the Environment?". National Geographic News. Retrieved 26 November 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Planet Earth's new nemesis?". BBC News. 8 May 2002. Retrieved 26 November 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "Plastic bags & Metro Floods". Manila Bulletin Publishing Corporation. 4 February 2011. Retrieved 5 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. "The Manila Floods: Why Wasn't the City Prepared?". ICIMOD. 29 September 2009. Retrieved 5 September 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Brett Israel (2010). "Plastic bag found floating near Titanic shipwreck". Today. Retrieved 1 December 2010.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  18. Lua error in Module:Citation/CS1/Identifiers at line 47: attempt to index field 'wikibase' (a nil value).
  19. Martin, Andrew (2008-01-23). "Whole Foods Chain to Stop Use of Plastic Bags". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 September 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "IKEA to Phase Out Plastic Bags in U.S." GreenBiz. 2 April 2008. Retrieved 3 July 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. "2007 National Post-Consumer Recycled Plastic Bag & Film Report".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. "EPA NE: Questions About Your Community – Shopping Bags: Paper or Plastic or . . . ?". Archived from the original on 26 April 2006.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. Plastic shopping bags in Australia. (2010-06-13). Retrieved on 2010-11-23.
  24. Environment Agency (2011). "Evidence: Life Cycle Assessment of Supermarket Carrier Bags" (PDF). Environment Agency. Retrieved 7 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Irena Choi Stern (5 August 2007). "Greening Up by Cutting Down on Plastic Bags". The New York Times. Retrieved 8 April 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading