Thursday, May 28th, 2009 | Author:  | 7,633 views - starting Aug 9/09

in keeping with the theme of plastic bags and the importance of minimizing our use of them, i’ve been thinking a lot about how interesting it is that certain trends evolve and spread like wildfire when the media, industry, politicians, and the general public finally believe in the worthiness of a cause … we should all learn from success stories and keep in mind how powerful we are and how easily effective changes can be made …

in recent years, the move from plastic bags to reusable cloth bags has become an international “what-you-can-do-for-the-Earth” symbol, with more cities or even entire countries passing legislation to outright ban the use of plastic bags or impose a fee for each plastic bag used by consumers … reusable bags are now en vogue, spawning a market for designer totes …

however, for several decades (centuries, actually!), people around the world have been using and re-using cloth sacs, woven baskets, knitted pouches, and leather satchels to carry goods purchased at the market, fruits and vegetables harvested from the soil, and books or other wares that need to be transported … indeed, this was the norm before plastic bags were even invented … and in countries where resources are limited, these kinds of resuable containers haven’t faded out of use …

baskets such as this one are made from old telephone wires by women in Uganda

baskets such as this one are made from old telephone wires by women in Uganda

so when, how, and why did plastic bags become so popular?

When:

the first recorded man-made plastic material was Parkesine, made from cellulose (the material that makes plant cell walls rigid and which constitutes dietary fiber for animals — including humans — who are unable to digest it without the help of intestinal microbes) mixed with nitric acid (a strongly corrosive substance synthesized from nitrogen dioxide and water in a laboratory) and a solvent (usually ethanol), which was invented in 1856 in England by Alexander Parkes … parkesine is a semi-synthetic thermoplastic, which means that at high temperatures it melts and that it is synthesized from natural and synthetic compounds …

prior to this, natural plant waxes, resins, oleoresins, shellacs, latex, gums, and rubbers were used in much the same way fully synthetic plastics are used today, albeit these natural products had fewer applications due to their biodegradability and high maleability …

eventually, parkesine was produced using camphor (a resin from the gorgeous evergreen camphor laurel tree, Cinnamomum camphora) as the solvent and the name was changed to Celluloid … one of the fabulous consequences of this invention is that it precipitated the switch from ivory billiard balls to this man-made substance … at least some elephants were saved from losing their tusks and their lives for such a trite purpose …

ivory cue ball

ivory cue ball

celluloid billiard balls

celluloid billiard balls

the first purely synthetic plastic material was Bakelite, a mixture of phenol and formaldehyde, patented in 1909 in New York by Leo Hendrik Baekeland … improvements on these early substances eventually led to the myriad of different plastics that literally shape our world today … petroleum and natural gas became the primary raw materials in the manufacture of plastics after World War I …

How & Why:

the how and why are easy … in the post-WWI era, when plastics became popular, increasingly ubiquitous, and affordable, people enjoyed the convenience of apparently disposable items … the craze with disposable items only grew worse after WWII … disposability gave people a carefree sense of personal affluence, of global abundance, and of aristocratic power, regardless of their income or social status …

unfortunately, people are still fooled by this marketing fallacy, and disposability is still attractive … even more unfortunate is the fact that disposable items are becoming increasingly attractive to more people around the world, thanks to the example set by economically and industrially developed countries …

today, plastic bags are manufactured using high-density polyethylene (HDPE), low-density polyethylene (LDPE), or linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) … hence, there’s more than just the littering of plastic bags that renders them environmentally damaging … extracting, processing, and refining petroleum (crude oil) to yield or manufacture any by-products of this industry devastates ecosystems at every level …

ultimately, the key message is still to use and reuse cloth bags … and you don’t even need to buy them … you can make your own out of old t-shirts, towels, blankets, or pants! … even if you don’t have the greatest sewing skills, it doesn’t matter because a shopping bag doesn’t need to “fit right” … you don’t even need a sewing maching … needle and thread plus a thimble will do … experiment with patchwork materials, shapes, sizes, thread colours … decorate yours with buttons, sparkles, lace, patches …

lop-sided or asymmetrical bags have more character, anyway … they are so much fun to make!!

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4 Responses

  1. 1
    furn andle 

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  2. 2
    Bilardo Onya 

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  3. 3
    Maggie 

    Awesome info Thanks!

  4. 4
    daniela 

    thank you for your kind words, bilardo! i’m very glad you enjoy my blog … :)