Death By Plastic



Plastic Bag in the Sun Via. Ethan Scott Barnett

Plastic bags have also served as a source of parental anxiety. During the 1950s, many children across the nation died because of suffocation in plastic bags. These large bags were used to cover dry cleaning and protect goods. [1] In response to the plastic bag deaths of the mid-twentieth century, plastic bags were soon printed with warnings. The bag above reads, “TO AVOID DANGER OF SUFFOCATION, KEEP THIS PLASTIC BAG AWAY FROM BABIES AND CHILDREN…THE PLASTIC BAG COULD BLOCK NOSE AND MOUTH AND PREVENT BREATHING. THIS BAG IS NOT A TOY.” This now commonplace warning points to the longer history of plastic bags being introduced to society through trial and error.

“Rash of Plastic Bag Child Deaths Relief in ‘Breathers’.” Wilmington Daily Press (Wilmington, California), June 10, 1959. Accessed May 10, 2018.

In the 1950s, the outcry against death by plastic bag became a national discussion because of a growing rate of suicides among adults and unintentional infant deaths by smothering. A 1959 article in California’s Wilmington Daily Press Journal reported that “legislatures have considered passing laws restricting” plastic in small businesses like cleaning and laundry shops. The pressure from the public and government legislators led bag producers to rethink their practices. Paul Cohen, who had been president of the Technical Tape Corporation located in New Rochelle, N.Y., remarked that the company considered creating a “breathable plastic bag” that “would be full of pinholes.” In the event that a child was covered by the bag, then that “infant could breathe.” [2] It is unclear if this bag ever went into mass production or was produced at all.

Chris Jordan

Midway: Message from the Gyre (2009) by Chris Jordan

Today, plastic bag deaths for humans are less common, but environmental activists regularly lodge complaints against plastic producers, documenting a growing trend in animal deaths, from small birds and squirrels to massive creatures like whales and octopi. A 2013 survey of life in San Francisco reported that approximately 400 birds died from ingesting plastic bags that year. One of the most recent examples of plastic bags’ fatal repercussions that reached international attention was when a whale beached itself on a Norwegian beach, with, the Washington Post reported, “about 30 plastic bags…packed in its stomach.”[3]

While there is growing public understanding of the impact of plastic bags on our species, there is still a noticeable disconnect for many to understand the broad impact of their everyday behaviors.


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle                                               Paper or Plastic



[1] Wisely, Lawrence J. “Plastic Bag Death Toll In U.S. Is Placed at 44.” Courier-Post (Camden, New Jersey), May 14, 1959. Accessed May 10, 2018.

[2]”Rash of Plastic Bag Child Deaths Relief in ‘Breathers’.” Wilmington Daily Press (Wilmington, California), June 10, 1959. Accessed May 10, 2018. Bag child death.

[3] Papenfuss, Mary. “Beached Whale Found With 30 Plastic Bags Crammed In Its Belly.” The Huffington Post. February 04, 2017. Accessed May 01, 2018.