From birth to ban: A history of the plastic shopping bag

Reuters / 25 Apr 2018

Originally published in April 2018, this story has been updated to include the latest facts, figures and references. 

A novelty in the 1970s, plastic shopping bags are now an omnipresent product found in every corner of the world.

Produced at a rate of up to one trillion bags per year, they are showing up in the darkest depths of the ocean to the summit of Mount Everest to the polar ice caps.

Being so widespread, plastic bags are intensifying some major environmental challenges.

So where did they come from and how did we reach this point?

1933 – Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, is created by accident at a  Cheshire chemical plant in Northwich, England.


In 1933, a team of chemists at the ICI Wallerscote plant near Northwich were working on polymers when an experiment went strangely wrong.

A white, waxy residue was produced – not the intended result – which turned out to be polyethylene, better known as polythene.

George Feachem, a young chemist, was on duty that night and witnessed this discovery; he could not have imagined the impact it was to have on the world – both for good and for bad.


George Feachem
 He was obviously a very modest man because my grandmother didn’t even know it was there
Chris Browning, grandson of George Feachem

George died in the late 1970s.

But it wasn’t until 2009 that his family discovered a small, triangular, plastic medallion inside an old wallet they found in a drawer of his possessions.

Intriguingly, it was inscribed with the date ‘Dec 1938’ and attached to a small brass clasp engraved with his initials, ‘G.F.’

After making enquiries, they found that George’s secret keepsake was a sample of the first ton of polythene ever produced and presented to the team that perfected the technique.

George’s grandson Chris Browning has now submitted the first piece of polythene to the BBC History of the World project in recognition of his grandfather’s work.

“He was obviously a very modest man because my grandmother [Margaret Greenhow] didn’t even know it was there,” he said

“The triangle sat in the wallet, in his back pocket, and then in a drawer for nearly 70 years until we found it last year.”

“I think it’s touching to think that this discovery meant so much to him at the time that he kept this memento, not hidden away, but in his wallet, on his person for all those years.”


Hula hoop

The discovery of polythene is attributed to two scientists – Eric Fawcett and Reginald Gibson – who first produced it by accident in 1933.

It took five years for ICI to consistently reproduce the chemistry and, as ICI records reveal, the first item ever made from polythene was a ‘cream-coloured walking stick.’


ICI notes on polythene

ICI records reveal the day polythene was discovered

By 1938, ICI finally perfected the technique to allow production of this versatile plastic on an industrial scale.

It proved a timely breakthrough.

By the start of World War II, large plants were busy producing large quantities of this new substance which proved invaluable to the war effort.

Polythene was used as an insulating material for radar cables during World War II, and the substance was a closely guarded secret.

Its availability gave Britain an advantage in long-distance air warfare, most significantly in the Battle of the Atlantic, against the German submarines which threatened to starve Britain of food.

After the War, polythene was produced commercially and was the raw material of the ‘hula hoop’, the worldwide craze of the 1950s.

Today, it’s used widely in the manufacture of food packaging, carrier bags, plastic pipes, electrical cable insulation and even artificial hips.

However, because it takes several centuries to biodegrade, polythene is loathed by environmentalists and the polythene bag has become a symbol of Man’s pollution of the planet.

Despite this, Chris Browning is still hugely proud of his grandfather and those scientists in Northwich.

“I don’t think anyone on the team could have imagined the billions of supermarket carrier bags around the world, he said.

“But he helped to develop something that probably saved countless lives in the War, and that’s worth remembering.”

(Source: BBC, Manchester)

While polyethene had been created in small batches before, this was the first synthesis of the material that was industrially practical.

Seeing its potential, it was initially used in secret by the British military during World War II.

People working in a factory
Photo: Wikipedia


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.

A plastic shopping bag
Photo: Flickr / jericl cat

1979 – Already controlling 80 per cent of the bag market in Europe plastic bags begin to spread to the United States and other countries around the world.

Plastic companies begin to aggressively market their single-use product as superior to paper and reusable bags.

People shopping
Photo: Creative Commons

1982 – Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the United States, switch to plastic bags.

Though they are yet to be fully accepted by shoppers, single-use plastic bags are cheaper than alternatives, and more stores begin to follow Safeway and Kroger’s switch.

By the end of the decade, plastic bags will have almost entirely replaced paper bags around the world.

A vintage car
Photo: Visualhunt

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, this immense collection of marine litter and plastic pollution showcases the long-lasting and harmful effects of single-use plastic products.

A plastic bag in the ocean
Photo: Creative Commons

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.

Settlements on a lake
Photo: Reuters

2011 – Worldwide, one million plastic bags are consumed every minute.

Plastic litter in a park
Photo: Reuters

2018 – As of July 2018, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) finds that 127 out of 192 countries reviewed have enacted some form of national legislation to address the problem of plastic bags.

A map showing plastic bag bans across the world
Illustration: UNEP

2018 – #BeatPlasticPollution is chosen as the theme of World Environment Day, hosted 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.

Beat plastic pollution logo

2019 – The European Union’s (EU) Directive on single-use plastics takes effect as the EU aims to lead the fight against marine litter and plastic pollution.

EU plastic strategy logo
Photo: European Commission 

2020 – Recognizing its massive waste problemChina commits to strengthening national plastic pollution control, ushering in an era of single-use plastic reduction.

Plastic infographic
Photo: CGTN

2022 – A major milestone turning the tide on plastic, the United States agrees to support a global treaty to combat ocean plastic pollution, setting the stage for international cooperation and action.

Inger Andersen with US Secretary Andrew Blinken
Photo: UNIC Nairobi

Sources:Reuters,  UNEP, 20 December, 2021

Last Updated on 11.07.2024 by iskova