Monday, June 14, 2021

History of the Humble Disposable Bags

In the early 1800’s, thanks to the industrial revolution, the prices of many goods grew steadily cheaper. This corresponded to a boom in product sales and distribution. One of the products that costed less was paper. This was thanks to a 1799 invention of a machine that could mass produce it. A few vendors found that customers appreciated having their goods packaged and bound together in order to take home. Paper was the perfect material to protect items in transit. Twine was used to close the paper into a bundle and a loop could be added for a convenient handle. According to Pamela Klaffke in Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping, stores across Europe and America began to provide this packaging as a curtesy to their customers. 

In 1852, Mr. Francis Wolle received a patent for a machine that made a paper bag. It was the birth of the disposable bag.1 Incremental changes were made to improve the paper bag over the next century. Various designs and sizes were developed to accommodate a variety of needs. Almost 100 years later, Canadians Harry Wasylyk and Larry Hansen invented the plastic garbage bag in their kitchen in 1950. Prior to this people used paper bags or simply placed their garbage loose in the trash can. These green bags ushered in a more hygienic future. They were first used in Winnipeg General Hospital to help reduce the spread of polio during the polio epidemic. These trash can liners as they were originally known, finally became widespread in the 1960’s. Trash management has been easier ever since.2

An interesting side note is that, Wilhelm Wendt, owner and founder of the Swedish store Perstorp attempted to find a cost effective replacement for paper bags in the 1950s. He developed what is likely the first mass produced reusable shopping bag called Shopping Bag 329. His patented bag had some success in Europe. In the 1960’s disposable plastic shopping bags led to a decline in popularity of Shopping Bag 329. Ironically, the over-prevalence of plastic shopping bags and widespread knowledge of their negative environmental impacts led Perstorp to resurrect the design in the early 2000’s as reusable shopping bags gained popularity.3

Another major innovation happened in 1951 when Borge Madsen invented the plastic zipper. It functioned with a slider pull tab like a conventional zipper and was expensive to manufacture. It found limited use as a closure for packages and bags. Two brothers, Max Austin and Edgar Austin, saw promise in the idea and purchased the patent to start a company around it called Flexigrip. Over the next decade and multiple design iterations, they produced the first plastic zipper bag. It featured a press and seal zip closure rather than a slider pull tab design. In the mid-1960’s Dow Chemical approached the brothers for exclusive rights to make the product. Thus the famous Ziploc was born.4,5

A major change in disposable bag technology came in 1965 when Sten Gustaf Thulin invented the first disposable but sturdy plastic shopping bag. His major idea was to add handles for easy carrying. The technology received mixed reviews from store clerks and was improved incrementally by various companies for several years. In 1982, grocery store chain Kroger settled on a winning design and switched from paper to plastic bags in their checkout lines. It was wildly successful and many other stores switched rapidly. This is the most common and versatile disposable bag around today.6

What do disposable bags have to do with the outdoors? Two major, and frequently overlooked, ways. Garbage bags have not only made our modern lives more sanitary, they have also improved the environment. Throwing trash in the street, in the river, or elsewhere was a common practice prior to the introduction of the disposable trash bag. This humble invention made trash collection much simpler, cheaper and more convenient. So, more trash is collected and disposed of in a more environmentally friendly landfill or recycling facility. Bagged trash tends to have less odor meaning wildlife is less likely to get into the trash exposing them to toxic chemicals or pathogens. In modern times, classic trash bags are seen in a less favorable light by environmentalists because they take so long to decompose. Thankfully, modern trash bags can be made of more earth friendly biodegradable plastics. Completely eliminating the disposable trash bag would definitely be worse for the environment. 

Second, disposable bags have made outdoor recreation infinitely better. Plastic bags are inescapable for the outdoor recreator. Nearly as soon as they became widely available, backpackers and all sorts of other outdoor enthusiasts adopted them. One of the very first how-to guidebook for backpacking was The Compete Walker printed in 1968. In it, author Colin Fletcher discusses several uses for plastic bags out on the trail.7 They can be used to package food, keep clothing and gear clean and dry, double as an emergency poncho, hold your trash, or simply keep your gear organized. 

While they are inseparable from outdoor pursuits, it is important to reuse your disposable bags as many times as possible to reduce excess waste and cost. Purchasing biodegradable bags is also an eco-friendly choice. This modern convenience did not come about by accident. It is a result of over 100 years of hard work and innovation. Next time you use a humble disposable bag, think about how much better it makes your life. Then recycle it. 

By David F. Garner







7. Colin Fletcher, The Complete Walker, 1968, p. 271, print.