It seems like plastic bags have always been part of our lives. From checking out at the grocery store to picking up a takeout order, we’ve gotten used to seeing them nearly everywhere we go.

Plastic bags haven’t been around forever, though! Take a look at where they started and how we got to where we are today.

History of Plastic Bags Timeline

  • 1852

    Alchetron.com

    Francis Wolle invented the paper bag making machine in 1852. Not long after, he patented this invention with his brother and together they created the Union Paper Bag Company. This is the beginning of grocery bags as we know it!

  • 1933

    bbc.co.uk

    We couldn’t rely on paper bags forever! Polyethylene was invented in 1933 by Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson. This invention helped pave the way for stronger polyethylene to be invented later down the line. We wouldn’t have plastic bags if it weren’t for this first iteration of plastic!

  • 1953

    sciencehistory.org

    High-density polyethylene (HDPE) was invented in 1953 by Karl Ziegler and Erhard Holzkamp. Since most plastic bags are now made from HDPE, this was a major step forward in creating the modern plastic bag. Ziegler was even awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize for Chemistry because of this invention!

  • 1965

    en.goodtimes.my

    Sten Gustaf Thulin , an employee at a company called Celloplast, invented the first official plastic bag in 1965. This was the start of the modern plastic bags we see today!

  • 1976

    signsnow.com

    Mobil Chemical began producing their own plastic bags in 1976. Not soon after, they tested their bags by releasing a small amount to U.S. stores. These plastic bags weren’t initially successful because store clerks didn’t like how the sides stuck together.

  • 1982

    unenvironment.org

    Major grocery chains Safeway and Kroger replaced their paper bags with plastic ones. This saved the companies a significant amount of money because plastic bags were much less expensive than paper bags.

  • 1985

    jericl cat on Flickr.com

    By the end of 1985, 75% of supermarkets offered plastic bags as an option to their customers, but most still preferred paper versions. Customers who were set in their ways were more apprehensive about the idea of a new type of shopping bag.

  • 1988

    R.W. Rogers Company

    By 1988, 40% of grocery bags in the United States were made from plastic. Consumers started to feel more positively about plastic shopping bags and retailers were saving a lot of money. One of the biggest selling points for plastic bags was their handles, something paper bags didn’t have until the 90’s!

  • 1999

    In 1999, plastic bag manufacturing jobs employed over 42,000 people. The industry was booming at the time, supplying tons of plastic bags to grocery stores and gas stations across the country.

  • 2007

    San Francisco banned single-use plastic bags in 2007. They were the first city in the country to implement this law, and since then, other cities have followed suit. The goal of the ban was to encourage residents to use eco-friendly alternatives like reusable tote bags to lessen the burden on the environment.

  • 2014

    Los Angeles Times

    California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in 2014. Many states followed suit, and the trend for reusable shopping bags began to take hold. Since then, Hawaii and New York have also banned plastic bags.

  • 2018

    Produce Blue Book

    In 2018, Trader Joe’s announced that they would be removing plastic produce bags from their stores and replacing them with compostable versions. The compostable produce bags can be broken down in landfills, which reduces the strain on the environment.

  • 2020

    KPBS

    Plastic bags saw a resurgence because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Single use plastic bags were more sanitary than reusable versions, and many grocery stores wouldn’t allow reusable bags because of health concerns.

Svenskt Uppfinnare Museum

Who Invented Plastic Bags?

Svenskt Uppfinnare Museum

Sten Gustaf Thulin, a Swedish engineer, invented the modern-day plastic bag in 1965. Thulin officially introduced the bag to the world after a packaging company he worked for, Celloplast, made it available to the marketplace.

Believe it or not, Thulin created the plastic bag to help the environment! At the time, paper bags were the bag of choice. This meant tons of trees were getting chopped down just so people could bring their items home from the store, and then they’d toss the bag in the garbage. Thulin was deadset on creating an alternative that people could use again and again. And thus, the plastic bag was born!

“To my dad, the idea that people would simply throw plastic bags away would be bizarre. It was very much an improvement on what was there before.”

– Raoul Thuln (son of Sten Gustaf Thulin) in an interview with the BBC

Sten Thulin always carried a folded plastic bag in his pocket. Any time he went to the store, he would reuse them!

PBS

Where Did Plastic Bags Originate?

PBS

Plastic bags first originated in Sweden after an engineer patented the design. While you might think this would mean that Sweden became a plastic bag-making powerhouse, that wasn’t the case! It wasn’t until Mobil Chemical made their own bag in the United States that plastic bags started getting mass produced.

Even after plastic bags were first introduced, they weren’t a hit among grocery store workers. Static would cause the bags to stick together, which meant it took more time for employees to bag groceries. After workers got used to opening them and incorporating them into their routine, the bags became more popular. Sometimes it just takes a little persistence!

Plastic bags have a much lower carbon footprint than paper bags!

Why Did We Start Using Plastic Bags?

We started using plastic bags in the 1980s because they were cheaper than paper bags. Shoppers also preferred plastic bags because they had handles, something paper bags didn’t offer at the time.

Between the savings they offered for grocery chains and the added convenience for consumers, the choice was clear: Plastic bags were the better option!

Why is There a Plastic Bag Ban?

There is a ban on plastic bags in certain areas of the United States because of the impact they can have on the environment. Not only do plastic bags take up space in landfills, but they can also harm wildlife.

Not all plastic bags are included in statewide bans, however. For example, even though New York announced plans to ban plastic bags, they’re making exceptions for takeout, food delivery, prescription drugs, and more. Plastic bags are more sanitary than reusable ones, so it’s best to put items like raw meat or medication in these bags versus tote bags.

What Does the Future Hold for Plastic Bags?

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has sparked a resurgence in plastic bag usage, it’s likely that single use bags won’t be used at grocery stores as much as they used to be. However, businesses like restaurants, pharmacies, and meat markets will likely continue to use plastic bags for the sake of cleanliness and convenience.

Reusable bags are great for quick trips to the grocery store, but you likely won’t see restaurants putting to-go orders in them anytime soon. For now, plastic bags still have a part in our day-to-day lives!

The Bottom Line

Without plastic bags, ordering takeout and running to the drugstore just wouldn’t be the same. They make our shopping trips convenient and safe! We may not know what the future exactly holds for plastic bags, but without the important role they played in our history, we wouldn’t be where we are today.

References

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About the author

Kelsey Skager

Kelsey is a master of promotional products with over five years of marketing and industry experience. She is proud to have been featured on ABC 7 Chicago News and NPR.