A rare novelty in the 1970s, plastic shopping bags are now an omnipresent global product, produced at a rate of one trillion a year. They are showing up in the darkest depths of the oceans to the summit of Mount Everest to the polar ice caps – and creating some major environmental challenges.
How did this happen?
1933 – Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, is created by accident at a chemical plant in Northwich, England. While polyethylene had been created in small batches before, this was the first synthesis of the material that was industrially practical, and it was initially used in secret by the British military during World War II.
1965 – The one-piece polyethylene shopping bag is patented by the Swedish company Celloplast. Designed by engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, the plastic bag quickly begins to replace cloth and plastic in Europe.
1979 – Already controlling 80% of the bag market in Europe, plastic bags go abroad and are widely introduced to the United States. Plastic companies begin to aggressively market their product as superior to paper and reusable bags.
1982 – Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the United States, switch to plastic bags. More stores follow suit and by the end of the decade plastic bags will have almost replaced paper around the world.
1997 – Sailor and researcher Charles Moore discovers the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of several gyres in the world’s oceans where immense amounts of plastic waste have accumulated, threatening marine life. Plastic bags are notorious for killing sea turtles, which mistakenly think they are jellyfish and eat them.
2002 – Bangladesh is the first country in the world to implement a ban on thin plastic bags, after it was found they played a key role in clogging drainage systems during disastrous flooding. Other countries begin to follow suit.
2011 – Worldwide one million plastic bags are consumed every minute.
2017 – Kenya bans plastic bags, making it one the most recent of the more than two dozen countries that have sought to reduce plastic bag use through fees or bans.
2018 – #BeatPlasticPollution is chosen as the theme of World Environment Day, hosted this year by India. Companies and governments around the world continue to announce new pledges to tackle plastic waste.
#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day 2018.