Here is a list of things that are thicker than a typical plastic grocery bag: A strand of hair. A coat of paint. A human cornea.
High-density polyethylene is a miracle of materials science. Despite weighing less than 5 grams, one bag can hold 17 pounds, well over 1,000 times its own weight. At about a penny apiece, the bags are cheap enough for stores to give away and sturdy enough to carry home two gallons of milk in the evening and still be up to the task of scooping Cujo's poop the next morning.
Yet almost as soon as grocers started offering their customers the choice of "paper or plastic?" these modern marvels became a whipping boy for environmentalists, politicians, and other well-intentioned, ill-informed busybodies. Plastic bags for retail purchases are banned or taxed in more than 200 municipalities and a dozen countries, from San Francisco to South Africa, Bellingham to Bangladesh. Each region serves up its own custom blend of alarmist rhetoric; coastal areas blame the wispy totes for everything from asphyxiated sea turtles to melting glaciers, while inland banners decry the bags' role in urban landscape pollution and thoughtless consumerism.
But a closer look at the facts and figures reveals shaky science and the uncritical repetition of improbable statistics tossed about to shore up the case for a mostly aesthetic, symbolic act of conservation.
How did one of the most efficient, resource-saving inventions of the 20th century become an environmentalist bugaboo?
Before 1800, if you bought or traded for an object, you were pretty much on your own to get it home. People carried baskets for the little stuff and wheeled carts for the bigger items, often toting scraps of canvas or other durable fabric to wrap messier or more fragile goods, such as meat or pastries. This was back when the germ theory of disease was yet to be broadly accepted, and there were not yet Laundromats on every street corner.
In the early 19th century, paper became cheap enough that merchants started using it to package their wares, tying off the bundles with string—a huge leap for both convenience and sanitation. The paper bag was invented in the 1850s, but it wasn't until the 1870s that a factory girl named Margaret Knight cobbled together a machine that cut, folded, and glued flat-bottomed paper receptacles. While the brown paper bag seems like the height of humdrum to modern eyes, Knight's machine was kind of a big deal: She won a bitter intellectual property fight to receive one of the first patents ever awarded to a woman, and was eventually decorated by Queen Victoria for her efforts. Over time, the paper bag got cheaper and stronger and sprouted handles, but it remained essentially unchanged, comfortably dominating the stuff-schlepping market for the next 100 years.
Meanwhile, German chemist Hans von Pechmann was messing around with methane and ether in a lab in 1898 when he happened to notice a waxy precipitate called polymethylene. Unfortunately, no one could puzzle out what to do with the goo, so another 30 years would pass before DuPont chemists stumbled upon a similar compound, polyethylene. This time, the British figured out they could use it to insulate radar cables, which is where the substance served its war duty. In 1953, Karl Ziegler of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (later re-christened the Max Planck Institute, for obvious reasons) and Erhard Holzkamp invented high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and soon after figured out how to use it to make pipes. Ziegler even snagged a Nobel Prize for the invention in 1963.
But Gustaf Thulin Sten is the real hero (or villain, depending on your point of view) of our tale. An employee of the Swedish company Celloplast, Sten was the person who had the inspiration to punch holes into the side of super-thin tubes of HDPE, thus creating the ubiquitous, filmy "T-shirt bags" we know and love (to ban) today.
In a 1993 book that claims to reveal the "hidden life of groceries and other secrets of the supermarket," journalist Vince Staten pinpoints the moment that the global takeover of the plastic bag became inevitable: a 1985 gathering of the New Materials and Profits in Grocery Sacks and Coextrusions Conference at a Holiday Inn in Somerset, New Jersey, at which a representative from Chem Systems announced that plastic bags were 11.5 percent cheaper than paper. Just like that, the world changed. Plastic bags were stocked in 10 percent of grocery stores in 1983, according to Plastics World magazine. By 1985 it was 75 percent. "Paper or plastic?" immediately became an everyday question, a punchline, and a source of angst.
Almost from the beginning, plastic bags were controversial. After several high-profile suffocation deaths of children, manufacturers worked together to create a public safety campaign, staving off regulation and reducing accidents. As grocers substituted plastic for paper to bolster their bottom lines, suburban shoppers, who preferred to line up flat-bottomed paper bags in the backs of their cars, complained, even as urban shoppers rejoiced at the ability to comfortably and reliably carry more than two bags at a time.
The booming environmental movement was initially flummoxed. Forest conservation was a big deal in the '80s, a point in favor of plastic. But fossil fuels were a no-no, so maybe paper was better? Both types of bags at the time were tough to recycle. The debate raged on, leaving eco-conscious shoppers unclear about the best course of action.
In 2010, Guinness World Records named plastic bags the most ubiquitous consumer item in the world. But peak bag may already be upon us.
In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to prohibit plastic bags, citing concerns about water pollution and waste disposal. Chicago, Austin, Portland, and nearly all of Hawaii soon followed suit, chiming in with complaints about wastefulness, climate change, and more. Chinese officials banned plastic bags two months before hosting the 2008 Olympics, for the same reason they banned high-emissions vehicles and daytime pajama-wearing-such unsightly displays didn't match up with the image the People's Republic wanted to present to the world. In China, they call the floating sacks "white pollution." South Africans refer to bags snagged in bushes as their "national flower."
In Washington, D.C., concern about used plastic bags finding their way down storm drains, through the Anacostia River, and into the Chesapeake Bay was the primary justification for the capital city's 5-cent bag tax in 2010, under the slogan "Skip the Bag, Save the River." In 2006, the California Coastal Commission claimed that plastic bags make up 3.8 percent of beach litter, and a few years later the California Ocean Protection Council upped the ante to 8 percent of all coastal trash. Last year the Dallas City Council pinned 5 percent of the area's refuse on bags.
But the definitive American litter study—yep, such a thing exists—reports much lower figures. The 2009 Keep America Beautiful Survey, run by Steven Stein of Environmental Resources Planning, shows that all plastic bags, of which plastic retail bags are only a subset, are just 0.6 percent of visible litter nationwide. And those California data? They come from the International Coastal Commission (ICC), which the California Coastal Commission notes relies on information "collected by volunteers on one day each year, and is not a scientific assessment." (This insight, and many others in this story, is derived from a study produced last year by Julian Morris and Brian Seasholes for Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes reason.) In D.C., a 2008 analysis prepared for the city's Department of the Environment by the Anacostia Watershed Society found that plastic bags were only the third-largest contributor to litter in the river, after food wrappers and bottles and cans.