Photo by Jan Staller

From War Machine to Supermarket Staple: A History of the Plastic Bag

Plastic bags didn't used to be this popular. So how did we get here?

The history of the plastic carrier bag—the kind so often found caught on a tree branch and flagging in the wind—is a story of persuasion.

For over a century, the paper bag held dominion over how groceries were hauled home. By the 1980s, the plastics industry saw the grocery bag—a lucrative market, over $600 million at the time—as “the last stronghold” of the American supermarket, said Ronald Schmeider, marketing manager at Mobil Chemical, a subsidiary of what is now ExxonMobil. 

A succession of packaging innovations—cellophane followed by fossil carbon-based plastic films—had revolutionized how food was bought and sold. Producers started prepackaging breads and meat and produce in see-through plastics. Shopping evolved: self-service in one-stop shops. By the mid-20th century, supermarkets had eclipsed the bakery, the butcher shop, the greengrocer. Then plastics picked off the meat tray, the bread bag, and the egg carton, jobs previously performed by paper. 

But in the United States, the paper grocery bag proved far harder to supplant, even though major department stores like Montgomery Ward, Sears, and JC Penney had made the switch.

People “are fond of the old paper bag,” explained The American Paper Institute’s Peter Bunten. “It’s as American as the flag and apple pie.” 

US consumers encountered the first generation of plastic bags — produce bags, trash bags, garment bags — during the 1950s. The latter had a particularly troubling start. The feather-weight dry-cleaning bag could easily stick to skin, resulting in an alarming number of childhood deaths by suffocation. The public was outraged, wrote the historian Jeff Meikle in “Material Doubts.”

In 1959, Life Magazine cautioned parents about plastic bags with a full-page image of Dr. Leona Baumgartner, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health, shown gasping for breath, a bag over her head, the film taut across her mouth. The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) pledged to help the public understand “what a plastic bag is for…and what it is not.” This bag is not a toy.

“When bags have outlived their usefulness,” advised Kordite, a leading garment bag maker, “destroy or throw them away.” 

Jerome Heckman, a lawyer representing SPI, later hailed the success of what he called their “education not legislation” initiative for how it had “saved plastic bags and the plastic film markets to come.”

Including the grocery bag.

Mobil began eyeing the carrier bag market in the early 1970s. The plastics division of the company’s chemical subsidiary, makers of Hefty trash bags, commenced research and development, and in 1971 bought Pastucol Cos., an Italian firm producing plastic shopping bags overseas. In 1976, Mobil piloted one of its bags in American supermarkets. It seemed primed to become Americana—printed for the bicentennial in red, white, and blue.


The plastic grocery bag got its start in Europe. Introduced in the 1960s, by the 1970s, plastic had captured a sizable majority of the grocery bag market on the continent. In Japan and Australia, as well. 

A Swedish company, Aktiebolaget Celloplast, had developed the carrier bag in the late 1950s. Its design: a breakthrough. A bag with handles die-cut from a single, continuous tube of plastic film. Their bag was produced across Europe, and, eventually, in the United States through Celloplast USA, helmed by Bob “Bagsy” Siegel, the self-identified “grandfather” of the American shopping bag. The company’s international patent position was such that, for more than a decade, it held a “virtual monopoly” on the plastic bag, making it difficult for other US plastic producers to gain purchase.

Mobil instead directed its Italian production into the US market, explained journalist Susan Freinkel in Plastics: A Toxic Love Story, and in the meanwhile, they tried to design a bag of their own. One version: a paper bag look-alike, boxy, with tall sides and a stay-open mouth. Others had a poor first showing, she said. To customers’ dislike, store clerks licked their fingers to work open each bag. Plus Mobil’s choice of film was too flimsy, and, when overfilled, the bags ripped or tipped over, spilling customer’s groceries across the trunks of their cars. Consumers complained. Mobil’s legal department, through savvy lawyering, got Celloplast’s U.S. patent overturned in 1976. 

The Flexible Packaging Association (FPA) intervened, convening a Plastic Grocery Sack Council in 1985. Step one: differentiation. Insist on calling the plastic bag a “sack.” 

As explained in an FPA-authored history, the council deployed a public relations firm “to facilitate supermarkets’ move toward plastic sacks.” Store managers were trained to sell customers on plastic and cashiers to use new bag-dispensing systems to best pack groceries. Press kits for the campaign — called “Check Out the Sack. It’s Coming on Strong” — were distributed to 100 trade and 600 general consumer media publications to sell the bag on the prospects of its reuse.

“The Plastic Grocery Sack Council says plastic bags can be reused in more than 17 different ways, read one Los Angeles Times article from 1986, “including as a wrap for frozen foods, a jogger’s windbreaker or a beach bag.” 

“It’s taken a lot of re-educating to get people to accept plastic,” Celloplast USA’s Siegel said to the New York Times.

What end-users did with their bags, though, was beside the point. The point was to get retailers – the plastics industry’s true customers – to place and then re-up their purchase orders. Eventually, plastic underbid paper and won on price. The grocery store’s plastification was near complete, eventually totalizing — a phenomenon observed by the artist Robin Frohardt, whose pop-up Plastic Bag Store mimics the modern supermarket, except every SKU has been fashioned from shreds of found plastic bags that Frohardt finessed into the likeness of food (a nod to the historical incursion of plastic into food packaging but now also into food.) 


Polyethylene was first made industrially in England in the 1930s at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), a large chemical outfit that manufactured dyes, explosives, fertilizers, paints, and eventually plastics. The new species of plastic had an unplanned and rather inauspicious beginning, something of a “fluke,” as one lab assistant described it, a byproduct of ICI chemists’ curiosity and their willingness to endure the possible explosions. 

The chemists were experimenting with ethylene gas in their new, high-pressure reaction chamber — it was capable of generating pressures far above atmospheric conditions — and in the process, they created a white flaky residue. It looked “like a lump of sugar,” one ICI scientist told Women’s Own. But “in fact, that ‘sugar’ was ‘polythene.’” (In England, polyethylene was called polythene, thus Polythene Pam, for the Beatles fans among you.) Through trial and error, over many years, ICI chemists learned to make polyethylene safely, on purpose, and at scale.

Industrial production of polyethylene commenced in England on September 1, 1939, just as Nazi tanks breached Poland’s border. The military used polyethylene to insulate then-new radar systems, making them light enough for use in aircraft. Soon after the U.S. Navy helped two U.S. firms, DuPont and Union Carbide, negotiate licenses to commence production stateside, subsidized construction of dedicated factories, and promised to buy the output, effectively introducing polyethylene to the U.S. earlier than might have occurred otherwise.

After the war, multiple companies scrambled to enter the polyethylene market, too. A quarter of a billion dollars, at the time a remarkable sum, was invested, or as Fortune Magazine put it, “gambled,” on whether polyethylene would prove its peacetime potential. 

Said Fortune: “there’s an industry hunch that the American buying public will, in the next few years, adjust its habits to accommodate a geometrically expanding output of this frost-white waxy resin that has suddenly become a prime candidate for the honor of being the first ‘billion-pound plastic.’” Polyethylene’s production figures soon rivaled and eventually overtook both polystyrene and vinyl, the other top contenders. 



Years-long legal wrangling deliberated over how to sort post-war licenses. Technical issues still plagued the build-out, especially before the development of high-density polyethylene (HDPE), which didn’t require such high-pressure reactions. Plus, it was unclear how well fabricators could work the new-to-them material into saleable products.

Earl Tupper jumped in early, buying up what he could of Union Carbide’s polyethylene to make Tupperware, his reusable, resealable, “burpable”-bowl. Another early, commercial application was the squeeze bottle, little more than a “novelty,” wrote Fortune in 1954, one that in time would “have to win stature as a standard container.” It did. Polyethylene became the plastic of choice for much of the fast-growing packaging industry, growing into the prototypical plastic. Versatile, cheap, everywhere.

“Not for nothing,” wrote Primo Levi about polyethylene in The Periodic Table, his 1975 memoir about chemistry and the Holocaust, “the Heavenly Father Himself, who, though a master of polymerization, refrained from patenting it.” This line appears in the chapter “Cerium,” where Levi reflects on his internment in Auschwitz in Nazi-occupied Poland. There, he labored at a chemical, rubber, and later plastics plant, built by forced labor supplied to the plant’s owners, the German chemical combine I.G. Farben, by the SS. “Cerium” narrates how Levi would pocket lab supplies stolen from Farben and barter them as a means for survival.

If only polyethylene packaging had existed, he wrote in retrospect. A small bottle perhaps. Or maybe a bag. Of the kind that, today, is ubiquitous, even taken for granted. How “flexible, light, and splendidly impermeable” polyethylene is, he’d said. Surely it would have allowed him to secret away the laboratory’s most lucrative finds: liquids, a little gasoline, or alcohol. (“The price was high and so was the risk,” he explained.) 

And yet, no plastic could compare to how nature contains what’s fluid, or ephemeral. To Levi, polyethylene had nothing on the “multipart peel of the orange,” the eggshell, the cellular membrane, and the most dynamic packaging of all, skin. By comparison, it was a little too “incorruptible”— by which he meant, not subject to decay, to what he called the “perpetual, frightening round-dance of life and death.”

The polyethylene bag doesn’t so much carry as it carries on. 


Though designed for ease of carrying, what bags do best is accrete.

Bags collect in cabinets and closets, along fencelines, in storm drains, even among all the “waste lonely places,” the wilds beside highways and parking lots, where one might see them as “litter” and assume their backstory involves a careless or callous human. But most bags enter the waste stream exactly as waste systems were planned and as plastic makers wanted: through the trash. 

“The future of plastics is in the trash can,” the editor of Modern Packaging, Lloyd Stouffer, argued in the mid-1950s to a group of industry insiders. Stouffer had advocated for the industry “to stop thinking about ‘reuse’ packages and concentrate on single-use.”. If the plastics industry wants to drive sales, he argued, it must teach customers how to waste.

But: “A major problem in the marketing of disposable and expendable merchandise,” Modern Plastics noted in April 1957, “is the disinclination of consumers to accept the fact that such merchandise has been designed to be, and therefore should be, discardable and destroyable.”

Disposability was still a novel idea, one born before the Great Depression and at odds with the frugality of the World War II years. It was a social innovation, notes Memorial University plastics researcher, Max Liboiron, and it took time to take hold—a systematic rerouting of human behavior and norms. Laying waste to a manufactured item was made possible by cheap plastics, and it was taught (through advertising) to seem conceivable, then acceptable, and eventually unavoidable. Today, obsolescence and disposability are features intentionally built into products by designers, by design.

Stouffer circled back to these same themes in 1963 when he congratulated the Society of the Plastics Industry for now “filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastic bottles, plastic jugs, plastic tubes, blister and skin packs, plastic bags and films and sheet packages.”

“The happy day has arrived,” he concluded, “when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away.”

By 1987, Mobil’s Schmieder extolled the advantages of trashing non-biodegradable plastic bags: “Our products,” he told Reuters, “add stability to landfills.” 


And yet, even as the FPA worked to capture more of the grocery market, disposable plastics in general and plastic bags in particular were facing public scrutiny over their environmental implications. 

Take Sweden, for example. During the 1960s and 1970s, explained Johan Hagberg from the University of Gothenburg, Swedes tended to reuse their plastic bags, primarily for handling kitchen waste. “The idea that people would simply throw these away would [have been] bizarre,” adds the son of Sten Gustaf Thulin, one of the Celloplast employees who helped develop the plastic bag. His Dad would keep a folded plastic bag in his pocket just in case — an early practitioner of bring-your-own. Said his son: Thulin had thought the plastic bag could be an environmental good by reducing the number of trees felled to produce the paper version. 

“Gradually,” said Hagberg, whose research tracked the evolution of the plastic bag in the Swedish packaging trade press, “the use of shopping bags for disposing of other things led to questions about the disposal of shopping bags themselves, particularly plastic ones.” 

Photo by Jan Staller

Ditto, in Germany, where the historian Andrea Westermann likewise noted heightened consumer scrutiny of plastic carrier bags. “At my grocer’s,” read one 1972 public comment Westermann found, “I have already suggested the plastic bags are not given away so thoughtlessly.” 

Italy’s Industry Ministry said in 1985 that plastic grocery bags posed a “pollution problem” and announced an intention to ban them by January 1991.

Local-level bag bans followed in the U.S., even as the FPA continued to promote them. In 1988, Suffolk County Long Island proposed one such ban. At the time, only about 40 percent of U.S. grocery bags were plastic.

In response, SPI, the Flexible Packaging Association and allied trade groups deployed their “legal tools and carried the day,” said Heckman, thirty years after fending off the 1950s “bag scare.”

“The victory in Suffolk County did much more than lift the ban in this small region,” wrote the FPA in its 2000 report recounting its own history. “It also caused other jurisdictions to more carefully consider this type of statute before they worked to enact them.” 

By 2003, the American Plastics Council estimated plastic’s market share was approaching 80 percent. 

Italy took another twenty years to enact its bag ban. By the time the ban went into effect, in 2011, according to Plastic News, Italian merchants were buying 20 billion bags per year.

The annual rate of production now runs into the trillions.


In 1962, the same year Celloplast patented their plastic-handled sack in the U.S., my father started making plastics for Union Carbide at their central New Jersey plant.

Mostly, he made polystyrene, though he worked with other plastics as well. Like when the union went on strike, he and other low-level engineers were pressed to work the 12-hour graveyard shift in the polyethylene plant instead. 

During the overnight hours, he’d operate the unit’s air conveyors, loading a long line of rail cars with polyethylene pellets—what in the wild are now called nurdles — tiny, round grains of plastic bound for other factories, where they’d be melted, molded, extruded. Including into plastic bags.

Out the air conveyors, pellets of polyethylene roared forth with the force of a fire hose, in an incessant, thunderous torrent, he told me. To miss the mouth of the rail car, or worse, to overfill one, was to risk clogging the system or spraying pellets everywhere. It was work carried out at a scale almost beyond his comprehension, at speeds that frayed his nerves.

Dad was only in his 20s when he held the hose through which thousands of pounds of plastic poured. He was witness to what social scientists call the Great Acceleration, as plastics production started to climb exponentially. It was the late 1960s—the era of The Graduate, the film known for its sardonic, oft-quoted line about plastic and the “great future” that lay in its making—but my father was already contemplating a career change. And while plastics remained a growing sector, and would continue to grow unabated across the decades to come, there was no room for personal growth within the industry. He went to night school, studied public administration, and remade himself into a civil servant, in which capacity he helped develop just-coming-on-line municipal recycling systems in the 1980s.

At the time, ramping up plastics recycling was the next iteration of plastic makers’ anything-but-legislation initiatives.


Most conventional bags are printed with the recycling symbol, those iconic chasing arrows, leading to public confusion and now legal contestation

To have a shot at being recycled, plastic bags require (at minimum) separate collection, typically in bins stationed outside supermarkets or superstores. That’s because plastic bags are incompatible with the automated sorting machines municipalities use to process all of the recyclables carted to the curb for collection.

Bags are in fact the bane of the mechanical sorting process because they gum up the works, even break the machines. Recycling centers now beg the public to stop sending bags. Recyclers have even coined the term wishcycling to convey the persistent public act of recycling what isn’t readily redeemable. Bags are the most wishcycled items of all.

The sheer volume of bags inundating recycling centers requires operators to stop the machines regularly to remove them. The bags are then diverted into the waste stream.

For bags returned at collection sites, their fate is unclear.

Photo by Jan Staller

In 2023, journalists from ABC News tucked some four dozen trackers into plastic bags then dropped into recycling bins at supermarkets and superstores. Six bags never left the store where they’d been collected. Three bags turned up in Asia. The majority wound up not a recycling facilities, but at transfer stations, landfills, and incinerators.

In the end, most bags dodge all human designs for their discard. “Plastic always, always escapes,” says Liboiron. All it takes is for a swift breeze to lift and liberate bags from dumpsters and dumps and other collection points. 

Once in the wild, bags circulate and congregate with a logic all their own. They drip “like flesh” from the limbs of trees, hook fencing, or drift in the currents offshore. Some sink to the ocean floor. 

Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, tells a version of this story in Bag in the Wind, a 2010 book he wrote for children. It begins with a “puff of wind,” which helps a bag clear the landfill fence. Then the bag rides the open road, and runs the rivulets that trickle down roadside ditches. Along the way, it encounters branches and blackbirds and razor wire and even the occasional pocket. The bag eventually travels a circle, twice coming into the possession of the same little girl. Through the circular shape of his story, Kooser hints it is just a chapter in an ongoing drama. The life of a plastic bag is really an endless series of entanglements.

I once heard a segment on All Things Considered about a woman named Kathy Frederick who in 2008 began blogging about this one bag trapped in a tree outside her office window. 

She gendered the bag female and named her Windy. The blog garnered a “legion of followers” over its three-year run, signaling how feral bags have become something of a cultural phenomenon, something worth contemplation. 

Recall the baleful bag from the 1999 film American Beauty, tumbling in the breeze among the leaf litter of late fall. The film popularized a trend of philosophizing about the plastic bag. (“That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things,” says the reclusive teen who videotapes the bag in the film.) It was followed in 2010 by a short film from the PBS series Futurestates, which anthropomorphizes a bag in search of its purpose and its maker by giving it the voice of Werner Herzog. 

There have been Instagram accounts about bags in the wild, for example, I was a fan of @ISpyABag, and hashtags to track bags’ peregrinations, e.g., #hookedplastic, #bagsintrees, and #witchesknickers.

The latter, I discovered, is an Irish term for bags strung up in trees. Other names include: shoppers’ kites, retailed hawks, and, curiously, the state bird of Wyoming. In Kenya, where the plastic bag was banned in 2017, blown-about bags have even been called the “flowers of Africa.” 

My favorite term comes from Ian Frazier, staff writer at The New Yorker, who has called them the flag of chaos. He’s written a couple pieces about bags in trees, and his misadventures pulling them down with a bag snagger, a multistoried reacher his friend invented based on the fruit-harvesting pole. (In 2014, the New York Restoration Project used the tool to remove some 1,500 bags from the city’s 5.2 billion trees.)

Of course, time untangles bags, too, which is what happened to Windy. Eventually she grew too tattered to hold fast. As Frederick explained, a storm loosed her and she was gone. But of course, she was gone and not gone. 


When I see a bag trapped high in a tree, what comes to mind is this stand of sugar maples I read about in the news a while back. Hundreds of trees were taken by eminent domain, felled under the armed guard of U.S. marshals. Their trunks, painted in protest with the Stars and Stripes, lay red, white, and blue on the ground. 

The trees, part of a family maple farm in New Milford, Pennsylvania, had stood in the right-of-way of the Constitution Pipeline, which had been intended to convey natural gas from Pennsylvania to New York. The pipeline was part of a growing network of infrastructure to develop Appalachia’s natural gas deposits for energy, and for ethane, which is processed into ethylene and then plastics. The pipeline has since been scrapped, but in 2022, a new, massive, 3.5 billion pound-per-year polyethylene plant came online in Beaver County, Pennsylvania.

Trees break and remake carbon-based molecules, too, wrote Levi in “Carbon,” the most beloved chapter in The Periodic Table, a tribute to the elemental basis of all earthly life. The chemistry of trees (he focused on photosynthesis) is both silent and ancient, “refined, minute, and quick-witted;” nothing like human-designed industrial plants, “cumbersome, slow, and ponderous.” The essay had its genesis at a concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Northern Italy, where Levi, prior to his deportation to Auschwitz, described a “literary dream” about carbon, about telling the story of the carbon cycle, and carbon’s cycling through time and trees.

While ethylene is a high-volume commodity chemical, it is also a plant hormone made by trees. With ethylene, trees regulate their own growth and development, like when to bud, to set fruit, to drop leaves. 

It is also how trees warn one another: When a tree is wounded, when it senses flood or fire or infestation, it will release ethylene, which the wind circulates to caution others. We are surrounded by these silent, sylvan messages, uttered in a language too few humans understand. I’ve taken to thinking about the bag in this way, like Frazier’s flag of chaos, an aggregate of ethylene, an amplified distress signal carried by the wind, a forewarning in a form humankind can sense.

In the years since its introduction, trillions of polyethylene bags have been made to cart home groceries, dog poop, a child’s soiled clothes, and more. Its carrying capacity is roughly a thousand times its weight. But whatever a bag carries, wherever it travels, however tattered it becomes, even when it is no longer recognizably bag-like, it still carries the ambitions of its makers, and its uncertain legacy left to unknown generations, a load many orders of magnitude greater than any bag can truly bear.

An earlier version of this essay was edited by Michelle Legro and published in 2018 by Topic Magazine as “American Beauties.” A bibliography is available at

Rebecca Altman is trained as an environmental sociologist, serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Health and Environmental Health Network, and is working on an intimate history of plastics for Scribner Books (US) and Oneworld (UK). Altman was guest editor for a four-part Orion series on the effects of the petrochemical industry on life, economics, and democracy.