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origin story / culture

American Beauties

How plastic bags came to rule our lives, and why we can’t quit them.
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While the plastic sack was designed to carry goods, I’ve come to think that what the bag does best is collect.

They collect in cars and cabinets and closets, in cities and storm drains and in the “waste lonely places,” in the wilds beside highways and parking lots. You might assume bags like these are “litter” and that their backstory involves a careless or callous human. But most bags enter the waste stream exactly as waste systems were planned and as plastic makers wanted: through the trash.

“The future of plastics is in the trash can,” the editor of Modern Packaging magazine, Lloyd Stouffer, argued in the mid-1950s to a group of industry insiders. Stouffer had advocated for the industry “to stop thinking about ‘reuse’ packages and concentrate on single use.” If the plastics industry wants to drive sales, he argued, it must teach customers how to waste.

Disposability was still a new idea, born during the Great Depression and at odds with the frugality of the World War II years. It is a social innovation, and it took time to take hold—a systematic rerouting of human behavior and norms. Laying waste to a manufactured item was made possible by cheap plastics, and it was taught (through advertising) to seem conceivable, then acceptable, and eventually (in some cases) unavoidable. Today, obsolescence and disposability are features that have been intentionally built into products by industrial designers.

Stouffer circled back to these themes in 1963, when he congratulated the Society of the Plastics Industry for now “filling the trash cans, the rubbish dumps and the incinerators with literally billions of plastic bottles, plastic jugs, plastic tubes, blisters and skin packs, plastic bags and films and sheet packages.”

“The happy day has arrived,” he concluded, “when nobody any longer considers the plastics package too good to throw away.”
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