History of the Plastic Bag (Updated 11/2016)

Posted by — November 11, 2016 12:00 am
Note to reader: This timeline is intended as a starting point for people interested in the history and tactics of the single-use plastics industry. The information is pulled from various sources in the public domain and cites to these sources are provided. However, the author cannot be sure that the published references are 100% accurate and some dates are approximate.
1959 FIRST WARNING LABELS PRINTED ON PLASTIC BAGS – In 1959 after the deaths of 80 babies and toddlers, suffocated by plastic dry-cleaning bags, California introduces a law to ban plastic dry cleaning bags. A spokesperson from the plastics industry “blamed parental carelessness in the deaths” and contrary to previous comments regarding reuse, argued that polyethylene film was “made and costed to be disposable.”[i] The Society of the Plastics Industry, along with bag producers, resin companies and plastics processors drafted a Model Bill that preserved the existence of plastic garment bags in California. The net result is simply a printing requirement, providing a warning message, not a ban of the product.

CAUTION: Keep away from small children, the thin film may cling to nose and mouth
1961 INDUSTRY SHIFTS RESPONSIBILITY TO THE CONSUMER – As the single-use products industry promotes the convenience of a throw-away lifestyle, litter becomes a highly noticeable and concerning form of pollution. Keep America Beautiful, with funding from makers of single-use products, runs a series of highly successful PSAs (Susan Spotless and the Famous Crying Indian) effectively shifting blame from the producers of the products to consumers now known as, “Litter Bugs.”[iii]
1977 “PAPER OR PLASTIC” WARS BEGIN: The plastic grocery bag is introduced to the supermarket industry as an alternative to paper sacks.[iv] At this point, plastic produce bags had long overtaken paper bags in the produce aisle. The grocery sack market was later, in 1986, described as “paper’s last stronghold” by Mobil Chemical’s marketing manager. [v]
1982 BATTLE OF THE TRADE GROUPS: Industry establishes a Washington-based trade group of 26 plastic bag companies, called the Grocery Sack Council. The Council is formed to promote the benefits of plastic over paper, price being a compelling factor. Plastic bag market share reportedly grows from 4% in 1981 to 50% in 1988.[vi] In 1983, the American Paper Institute reportedly funds Jeanne Bakelar as she leads a nationwide campaign along with a number of women’s clubs, to bring paper bags back into stores. [vii]
1988 BAG BAN PROPOSED IN NEW YORK – INDUSTRY FILES LAWSUIT: Suffolk County New York passes a law banning the use of plastic grocery bags and other plastic food containers effective in July, 1989.[viii] The Plastic Bag Association, Society of Plastics Industry, Flexible Packaging Association and others in the plastics industry work together to get the law overturned. The Society of the Plastics Industry files a lawsuit and is victorious in 1990.[ix]
1990 PUBLIC OUTCRY IN MAINE: Maine bans single-use plastic bags at retail checkout in January.[x] In 1991, the law is overturned. [xi]

INDUSTRY LOBBYING EFFORTS: Partnership for Plastics Progress created – Top executives and managers from 27 of the largest U.S. plastics producers form an industry group, the Partnership for Plastics Progress, to respond to public concerns about plastics.[xii] It begins with a $50 million annual campaign of public information, education and relations. The organization is today called the American Plastics Council, which is part of the American Chemistry Council. [xiii] Consumer plastic bag recycling begins through a supermarket collection-site network. [xiv]

1996 PLASTIC BAGS BECOME UBIQUITOUS: 80% of grocery bags used are plastic. [xv]
1997 GREAT PACIFIC GARBAGE PATCH: Algalita Marine Research Foundation begins to document what it refers to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, bringing awareness to the issue of plastic pollution in the marine environment, specifically the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. In 1998, the Plastic Bag Association’s Elementary and Middle School Education Program gets traction with 10,000 requests. [xvi]
1998 INDUSTRY CONFLICT: George A. Makrauer, President of the Plastic Bag Association delivers a warning to the industry at its Annual Meeting, when that group was being merged into the Society of the Plastics Industry. [xvii] In 2009, he publishes the presentation with the following description: “The public’s disdain for things ‘plastic’ — especially bags — is due to shameful and short-term industry ‘leadership’ without care or concern for any long-term and science-based support.”[xviii]
2005 WIND BLOWN LITTER CAUSES ACTION: In response to being visually overwhelmed by plastic bags at the landfill in Chico, California Andy Keller is inspired to help Americans dispose of fewer unnecessary single-use plastic bags. He creates a reusable bag designed to fit in a pocket. The ChicoBag Company is created.

THE TRUE COST OF “FREE” PLASTIC BAGS: San Francisco is the first city in the United States to recommend a pass-through fee on single-use plastic bags. They estimate the cost to society and tax payers to be 17 cents per bag and propose an ordinance that would place that cost up front at the register, changing the dynamic at the register to include a conscious decision to accept a bag. [xix] The Plastic Bags Alliance (PBA), American Plastics Council (APC), other plastic-bag industry groups, and resin suppliers support a campaign called “Sack the Tax”. They propose a $700,000 advertising budget for 2005. [xx]

FAILED AGREEMENT: A voluntary reduction agreement is put in place between San Francisco and the Grocers to reduce plastic bag use by 10 million bags in one year, down from the then-current usage of between 50 and 150 million bags per year. However, all the grocers except Safeway fail to report bag usage numbers, preventing the city from determining if the goal is met. The voluntary action serves merely as a delaying tactic. [xxi]

2006 ROAD BLOCK: California Assembly Bill 2449, the “Plastic Bag and Litter Reduction Act” is passed, making locally imposed plastic bag fees within the state of California illegal. San Francisco is not able to move forward with their fee proposal. [xxii]
2007 ROAD BLOCK BACKFIRES: Since fees become illegal, San Francisco passes a ban on single-use plastic bags. The cities of Oakland and Fairfax, California quickly follow San Francisco’s lead and ban plastic bags. [xxiii]

ANOTHER LAWSUIT – NEW INDUSTRY TACTICS: Hilex Poly Company, Advance Polybag, and Superbag Operating, et al, form a group called Support Plastic Bag Recycling and use California’s Environmental Quality Act to require Oakland to spend an estimated $100,000 on an environmental impact report. They argue that a ban on plastic bags would increase the use of single-use paper bags, causing greater harm to the environment.[xxiv]
Oakland, financially strapped, is not able to conduct an EIR, and in 2009, the ban is revoked.[xxv]

2008 MORE LAWSUITS: Save The Plastic Bag Coalition is founded with Stephen Joseph as the public face. [xxvi] According to court documents[xxvii], Hilex Poly is reportedly a member. This coalition, whose membership is widely unknown, aggressively picks up where the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling leaves off, targeting municipalities considering plastic bag bans, including LA County, Palo Alto, Manhattan Beach, City of Encinitas, City of Morgan Hill, City of Mountain View, City of Santa Monica, City of San Diego, and Santa Clara County.[xxviii]

SEATTLE – GRASS ROOTS MOVEMENT DEFEATED – INDUSTRY SPENDS $1.4 MILLION: Environmental groups become increasingly concerned about the financial and ecological costs of wind-blown litter and oceanic plastic pollution. The single-use disposable bag becomes the poster-child of environmental irresponsibility.[xxix] Seattle City Council passes a 20-cent advance recover fee on single-use plastic bags. The industry leads a voter referendum[xxx] and spends a reported $1.4 million compared to the $80,000 raised by environmental interests.[xxxi] The investment pays off, with the measure voted down by a slim margin. However, despite industry spending, bag bans are passed in Westport, CT as well as in the California communities of Encinitas, Fairfield, Malibu and Manhattan Beach.

BATTLE OF THE FACTS: Save The Plastic Bag Coalition and others in the industry start to challenge the facts and statistics commonly cited when discussing the impact of single-use plastics. The plastic bag industry stance appears to be self-serving, and fail to acknowledge the legitimate environmental issues such as the plastic bag’s exceptional ability, despite proper disposal efforts, to become wind-blown litter.

CONSUMPTION INCREASES: Apparent annual consumption of plastic bags increases to 102 billion. If everyone in the United States tied their 2008 consumption of plastic bags together in a giant chain, the chain would reach around the Earth’s equator 776 times! [xxxii]

2009 WALMART STARTS TO BAN THE BAG: The retail giant tests consumer reaction to a phase out of single-use plastic bags in a handful of California stores. Wal-Mart isn’t alone and joins Ikea, Whole Foods, Costco and Target in voluntary efforts to reduce single-use bag waste.

INDUSTRY LEADER – SOUNDS ALARM: In an industry newsletter[xxxiii], Robert Bateman, head or Roplast Industries, urges change and sums up the issue this way: “The disposable plastic grocery bag industry is in this mess for two fundamental reasons. Many too many T-shirt bags are used, and the litter and marine debris issue was ignored for too long. . . .If the issues relating to plastic grocery bags are not addressed…other plastic products will soon be threatened…”

2010 MODEL BAG LEGISLATION ADDRESSES PAPER TOO: California, in an attempt to unify the state with one law regarding single-use bags, proposes a ban on plastic bags and a 5-cent fee on paper bags, addressing the behavioral argument that people would switch to paper if plastic bags were banned. Again, countless dollars are spent on campaign contributions, advertisements and lobbyists. The bill is defeated; however the defeat only proves to galvanize the grassroots movement.

A NEW BATTLE BEGINS – SINGLE-USE VS. REUSABLE: By the end of 2010, an estimated 20 communities across the United States have chosen to live with fewer single-use bags by approving a ban or advance recovery fee on single-use plastic bags.[xxxiv] The Plastics Industry efforts to combat these common sense initiatives are failing.

2011 INDUSTRY ATTACKS REUSABLE BAGS: With funding from the American Chemistry Council, Arizona researchers publish a study that concludes that reusable bags have a significant risk of bacterial cross-contamination.[xxxv] Sensational news stories[xxxvi] about the report blanket the nation. The Center for Consumer Freedom, publishes numerous reports about lead content in some reusable bags, creating uncertainty, fear and doubt.

CIVIC RESPONSE: In the first quarter of 2011, six more communities in the United States approve bans on single-use plastic bags.

INDUSTRY GIANTS SUE REUSABLE BAG COMPANY: Three of the largest single-use bag companies (Hilex Poly Company, LLC, Superbag Operating, LTD and Advance Polybag, Inc ) file a lawsuit in South Carolina against the ChicoBag Company, a small reusable bag company based in California, over the widely quoted environmental facts cited on their website. Some of the facts in question involve single-use bag consumption, recycling rates, and impacts of plastics on our environment. When ChicoBag challenged these three plastic bag companies to back up their allegations and asked for the true recycling rate for plastic bags among other things, Superbag and Advance Polybag provided little in response and subsequently dropped out of the case. Hilex Poly, the lone plaintiff without the support of its peers, agreed to settle the case the trio had brought against ChicoBag. Hilex Poly agreed to include statements on a website that discuss ways to prevent windblown litter. See press release.

GARBAGE PATCHES CONFIRMED: While some in the plastics industry say the Garbage Patch is a myth; the 5 Gyres Institute, founded in 2009, completes the first circumnavigation of the five subtropical gyres. Andy Keller joins the voyage to the South Pacific Gyre to see the issue for himself. All five gyres are found to be accumulation zones for plastic pollution.[xxxvii]

2014 CALIFORNIA IS THE FIST STATE TO PASS A STATE-WIDE BAN ON SINGLE-USE BAGS: After a 5 year entrenched battle with big plastic, SB270 is passed by both houses and signed by Governor Brown.

INDUSTRY VOWS TO OVERTURN CALIFORNIA’S BAG BAN: Big plastic, led by Novolex (aka Hilex Poly) initiate a referendum to overturn California’s bag ban law and delays the ban until November 2016.

PAPER AND PLASTIC JOIN FORCES: Novolex (aka Hilex Poly), the largest plastic bag manufacturer purchases Duro Bag, the largest paper bag company in the USA.

2015 ALEC TAKES AIM AT PLASTIC BAG BANS: The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a powerful industry funded front group, created model state legislation (A ban on bans) to restrict local ordinances banning single-use plastic bags.  Arizona, Missouri, Idaho, Indiana, Wisconsin and Utah all consider passing this legislation.

ARIZONA IS THE FIRST STATE TO OUTLAW LOCAL BAG BANS: The bill is the handiwork of Republican State Sen. Nancy Barto, who is concerned that future “excessive regulation” on bags and other disposable containers could stifle economic growth.

2016 OCEANS WILL HAVE MORE PLASTIC THAN FISH BY 2050: According to the world economic forum, if we keep producing plastics at predicted rates, plastics in the ocean will outweigh fish pound for pound in 2050.

FIVE CENT FEE ON PLASTIC BAGS IS APPROVED BY NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL: Passage of the bill came after two years of debate and at least one other attempt by the city’s elected officials to charge a fee or tax on disposable bags.

CALIFORNIA VOTERS UPHOLD STATE-WIDE BAN : Representatives of the plastics industry were the driving force in trying to overturn the 2014 law and raised more than $6 million to defeat Prop 67. Environmental groups were vastly outspent, though a majority of newspapers in the state took their side. As for Prop 65, the papers showed similar opposition, with The Mercury News editorial board notably calling it “one of the most disingenuous ballot measures in state history.” In the end, this is about Extended Producer Responsibility.  Big Plastic, instead of acknowledging the end-of-life impacts of their products, they (mainly Hilex Poly (AKA Novolex)) spent millions employing lawyers, lobbyists and PR Firms to try to pull the bag over our eyes and failed.  California has always led the way to a brighter future where business and the environment can thrive.

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