Background

History of the plastic shopping bag

A rare novelty in the 1970s, plastic shopping bags are now an omnipresent global product, produced at a rate of one trillion a year. They are showing up in the darkest depths of the oceans to the summit of Mount Everest to the polar ice caps – and creating some major environmental challenges.

How did this happen?

  • 1933 Polyethylene, the most commonly used plastic, is created by accident at a chemical plant in Northwich, England. While polyethylene had been created in small batches before, this was the first synthesis of the material that was industrially practical, and it was initially used in secret by the British military during World War II.
  • 1965 The one-piece polyethylene shopping bag is patented by the Swedish company Celloplast. Designed by engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin, the plastic bag quickly begins to replace cloth and plastic in Europe.
  • 1979 Already controlling 80% of the bag market in Europe, plastic bags go abroad and are widely introduced to the United States. Plastic companies begin to aggressively market their product as superior to paper and reusable bags.
  • 1982 Safeway and Kroger, two of the biggest supermarket chains in the United States, switch to plastic bags. More stores follow suit and by the end of the decade plastic bags will have almost replaced paper around the world.
  • 1997 Sailor and researcher Charles Moore discovers the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the largest of several gyres in the world’s oceans where immense amounts of plastic waste have accumulated, threatening marine life. Plastic bags are notorious for killing sea turtles, which mistakenly think they are jellyfish and eat them.
  • 2002 Bangladesh is the first country in the world to implement a ban on thin plastic bags, after it was found they played a key role in clogging drainage systems during disastrous flooding. Other countries begin to follow suit.
  • 2011 Worldwide one million plastic bags are consumed every minute.
  • 2017 Kenya bans plastic bags, making it one the most recent of the more than two dozen countries that have sought to reduce plastic bag use through fees or bans.
  • 2018 #BeatPlasticPollution is chosen as the theme of World Environment Day, hosted this year by India. Companies and governments around the world continue to announce new pledges to tackle plastic waste.

History of World Environment Day

The year 1972 marked a turning point in the development of international environmental politics: the first major conference on environmental issues, convened under the auspices of the United Nations, was held from June 5-16 in Stockholm (Sweden). Known as the Conference on the Human Environment, or the Stockholm Conference, its goal was to forge a basic common outlook on how to address the challenge of preserving and enhancing the human environment.

Later that year, on 15 December, the General Assembly adopted a resolution (A/RES/2994 (XXVII)) designating June 5 as World Environment Day and urging “Governments and the organizations in the United Nations system to undertake on that day every year world-wide activities reaffirming their concern for the preservation and enhancement of the environment, with a view to deepening environmental awareness and to pursuing the determination expressed at the Conference.” The date coincides with the first day of the landmark Conference.

Also on 15 December, the General Assembly adopted another resolution (A/RES/3000 (XXVII)) that led to the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the specialized agency on environmental issues.

Since the first celebration in 1974, the World Environment Day has helped UNEP to raise awareness and generate political momentum around growing concerns such as the depletion of the ozone layer, toxic chemicals, desertification and global warming. The Day has developed into a global platform for taking action on urgent environmental issues. Millions of people have taken part over the years, helping drive change in our consumption habits, as well as in national and international environmental policy.

This is the history of World Environment Day.