It’s estimated that more than 1 trillion plastic bags are thrown away each year worldwide, amounting to billions of pounds of plastic landfill in the U.S. alone. But it wasn’t always this way, and we boomers recall a time when there wasn’t a single plastic bag to be had in a grocery store that wasn’t on a pre-packaged product. In fact, there was only one way to carry home groceries, and pieces of produce as well: paper bags.
Machines that made paper bag production possible were invented during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s. Before that time, cloth bags, wooden boxes and plant-based woven baskets were the carrying containers of their day.
“Plastics,” as a character prophetically stated in The Graduate (1967), was the future, and that future began arriving in the mid-’60s. Plastic produce bags on a roll were first seen in 1966. Nonetheless, it took another decade before it became the norm for supermarkets to substitute plastic for paper in the produce aisle.
It was eleven years later — in 1977 — when the now ubiquitous “t-shirt” plastic bag was introduced to the supermarket industry. Again, it took almost a decade for the complete transition to occur for consumers to switch from paper to plastic for carrying groceries, and ultimately, everything purchased at a store.
Mister Boomer recalls shopping with his parents at both local grocery stores and national supermarket chain stores. The produce aisles of each may have differed in size and selection, but along the expanse of counters in every grocery store were stacks of paper bags in different sizes. Picking up some tomatoes? There was a smaller size available. A dozen apples? Choose a medium size. Selecting from a bin of loose potatoes? A larger sack would be in order. Need two lemons? No bag would be necessary at all and the lemons could just be placed into the shopping cart.
When it came time to check out, heavy-duty paper bags — or paper bags doubled — could be packed with all your produce and groceries for the trek home. Some stores offered paper bags with handles, while others required a supporting arm beneath the sack for transport.
So what changed? For one thing, we have always been a people who wanted to embrace new technology. We like creating things that make us feel modern. But one of the biggest factors was probably cost: plastic bags could be bought by the stores cheaper than paper at that time.
During the transition period of the 1970s, many stores asked you which you preferred, paper or plastic. Our parents’ generation was used to scrimping, saving and repurposing, first through the Depression and then through a World War. So even when plastic was their choice, it meant that each bag would be reused for all sorts of purposes, from storage to garbage. In the years before plastic sandwich bags became the norm, Mister B remembers his grandmother saving plastic bread wrappers. At that time — the early 1960s — bread began being wrapped in plastic instead of waxed paper. She kept a stack of clean plastic bread wrappers in her pantry to use for sandwiches, leftovers, cheese wedges and more.
Our society has accepted much more of a throwaway mindset since our early boomer days, but there are indications that things may be changing. Some municipalities are looking at taxing plastic bag use, or eliminating them altogether in an effort to address the environmental impact. Other stores are offering incentives to use reusable sacks for carrying home groceries. The produce aisle may not be far behind as cloth and mesh produce bags are readily available online.
The Boomer Generation has always shown itself to be far from monolithic in thought, but Mister B wonders whether the generation that was the first to push forward an environmental awareness agenda couldn’t have a greater influence on the societal direction of things like the use of plastic produce and grocery bags. If it was the natural order of things when we were young, why would it be so much of an inconvenience today? Maybe it’s time we took a look at our shared history and remind ourselves that we are stardust, we are golden. And maybe it’s time to get ourselves back to the Garden.
Do you remember shopping in the pre-plastic bag era, boomers?