Plastic shopping bags: From modern marvel to public enemy no. 1

Gloucester Engineering makes the news again!

Heather Caliendo, a writer from Plastics Today recently published this article about the “war of plastic bags.” GEC President Carl Johnson was interviewed and gave his input on the history of the paper vs plastic debate..

Here’s an excerpt from that article… Click here to read the full article.

Gloucester Engineering created some of the first plastic bag making machines in the 1960s. Carl Johnson, president of Gloucester Engineering, said the company started with bottom seal bag machines (trash bags) and the company also made bag machines for garment film bags, which had a sloped shoulder to follow the contour of the hangear. The company eventually produced side welded bag machines.

As the bags gained momentum, other companies saw the financial potential and U.S. petrochemical company Mobil eventually overturned Celloplast’s U.S. patent in the late 1970s.

The phrase ‘paper or plastic?’ is coined

Gordon Dancy is the person behind the high-density plastic grocery bag that is used today. Reports claim that Dancy was concerned about the destruction of trees to manufacture paper bags. At the time, he believed plastic bags would not only save money, but also be better for the environment.

Dancy’s invention was made public in 1977 and the plastic grocery bag was introduced to the supermarket industry as an alternative to paper bags. In 1982, supermarket chains Kroger and Safeway began using the modern-day polyethylene t-shirt shaped bag.

Traditional plastic shopping bags are made from polyethylene, which is produced from the monomer ethylene. In the U.S, ethylene is primarily made of ethane, a waste by-product obtained from natural gas refining, meaning that domestically produced plastic bags are not made of oil, according to Stephen Joseph with

Depending on the supplier, the plastic shopping bags are high-density or low-density and are manufactured through blown film extrusion.

From the mid-1980s to our present day, plastic bags have been a staple that help consumers carry groceries from the store to their vehicles and then to homes. While plastic grocery bags were 2.3 mils (thousands of an inch) thick in the late 1970s, they were down to 1.75 mils by 1984. In 1989, new technology gave the industry the same strength and durability in a bag that was about 0.7 mil thick. A bag weighing less than one ounce can carry up to 44 lb.

Johnson said both plastic bags and bag-making machines have evolved quite a bit over the years.

“Just like everything else in the world, the bags have become thinner, stronger and lighter,” he said. “The bag machines themselves have become more accurate, faster, easier to set up, and run faster.  The hydraulics have been replaced by servo drives and motors so they don’t leak anymore.”

When it comes to paper or plastic, Johnson believes paper bags can’t touch plastics strength-to-weight ratio and plastic doesn’t fall apart when it gets wet. It consumes far more energy to transport the same number of paper bags as it does for plastic, he said. 

Still, there is a downside to having something be so “efficient.”

“Plastic bags are incredibly convenient and can be reused and ultimately recycled,” Johnson said. “They are produced so efficiently that we don’t view them as a valuable resource and this often hurts the recycling effort.”

Things began to change regarding the perception of plastic bags in 2002 when the Bangladesh government became the first in the world to ban their use. The government made this move after it was found that plastic bags contributed to blocked drains and waterways, which caused severe flooding.

This started a war of plastic bags. 

By Heather Caliendo, Plastics Today
Published: February 1st, 2013


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