Paper or Plastic?


Supermarket Checkers: “The Front Line” 1965 Reader’s Digest; Grocery Store Cashier Training Via. Library of Congress Prelinger Archives

The paper vs. plastic bag debate heated up in the pages of newspapers during the 1980s. When supermarket chains started to offer plastic bags at the checkout counter, they provided shoppers the opportunity to choose what material would collect their groceries for the first time. Many of the pros and cons that we argue in the present were on the minds of shoppers then. One study found that in 1982, only 5 percent of bags distributed in grocery stores across the United States were plastic. By 1984, that number had risen to 20 percent. Researchers had anticipated that by 1988, usage would more than double, with plastic bags consisting 60–70 % of total bags used in the U.S. supermarkets. This statistic wasn’t too far-fetched. In [year], Ronald Schmieder, the Market Manager for Mobil Chemical Company, claimed that “100 percent of all grocery bags are plastic” in Australia. [1]



Paper Bag Invention by Margaret E. Knight, Charles B. Stilwell Via. MoMa

That two-year period between 1982 and 1984 made a lasting impression on consumers, who were divided on the subject. In Missouri, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch interviewed a number of shoppers across the city. When asked about plastic or paper, one customer remarked, “I want paper bags. Plastic grocery bags won’t work in my wastebasket,” while another said, “I like soft things and wet things, such as produce, in plastic bags.” When the interviewer mentioned bag strength, one customer claimed to have “had a few glass jars of fruit juice in one and it broke open on the bottom,” but another shopper carried home “her frozen 20-pound Thanksgiving turkey and two gallons of milk in two plastic bags” only to find that “neither bag broke.” [2]

During the 1980s one of the major concerns among consumers for the switch from paper to plastic was that plastic bags wouldn’t work in wastebaskets. People were afraid that the bags would not physically fit into the receptacle or that they would fall down, and food would contaminate the garbage can. The physical structure of the bag was also a concern for people bringing their groceries home by car. Paper bags stood up while plastic bags fell over, allowing all of the contents to roll around the car. [3]


Paper vs. Plastic: A Grocery Bag Showdown Via. This Thing Vs. That

In Rochester, N.Y. , Democrat and Chronicle reporter Eric Gunn noted in 1983 that “plastics companies and retail stores may make paper bags as rare as cracker barrels and glass milk bottles.” He saw that consumers’ habits were changing rapidly—and not because of their own decisions. Rather, producers were replacing or removing reusable containers from the consumer market in order to make room for more single-use items like the plastic bag. But was it possible to make a bag that was both durable and disposable? Gunn interviewed one patron who opted out of the debate. Noting that that plastic bags are “using oil and natural gas” to make them, instead, this consumer brought “a reusable string bag” to carry groceries. [4] These comments allow us to understand two long-held critiques of the plastic bag: First, consumers have articulated environmental concerns about the plastic bag’s impact on the earth since it hit the checkout counter. And second, users have always relied on alternatives, including the centuries-old reusable string shopping bag.



Death by Plastic                                                             Plastic in Fashion



[1] Belkin, Lisa. “BATTLE OF THE GROCERY BAGS: PLASTIC VERSUS PAPER.” The New York Times, November 17, 1984. Accessed May 10, 2018.®ion=ArchiveBody&pgtype=article&pageNumber=46.
[2] “Bags.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 12, 1984. Accessed May 10, 2018.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Gunn, Erik. “Paper Not Your Grocery Bag? Think Plastics.” Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), July 5, 1983. Accessed May 10, 2018.