March 27, 1962 saw a menacing moment in the history of the environment. On that day,, the US Patent Office granted the Swedish plastics company Celloplast a patent for a continuous tube-like packaging material constructed and adapted to be divided into individual bags for packaging.
The term used obscures its momentousness, for the subject of the patent was nothing less than the first one-piece lightweight plastic grocery bag, the invention of Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin.
Armed with worldwide patents, Celloplast quickly established manufacturing plants across Europe and the United States. The company did not enjoy its monopoly for long. In 1977, the US petrochemical giant Mobil overturned the 1962 patent, and various home-grown companies were able to exploit the bag’s potential instead.
In the early 1980s, two US supermarket chains, Safeway and Kroger, finally abandoned the use of traditional paper grocery bag and embraced this alternative.
In its heyday, the polyethylene bag seemed just like any other phenomenon of the plastics age. In its country of origin, consumers were filling their households with cheap, durable plastic goods. It symbolized Sweden’s transition from agricultural to industrial state.
A post-plastics hangover was, however, inevitable. In the late 1990s, the environmental damage caused by the quietly indestructible plastic bags had made it an environmental menace. This has promptly launched the search for more environment-friendly alternatives.