The History of the Plastic Trash Bag - Friend or Foe?

Posted by Vivian McNeil on

“Can I just say one word to you? Just one-word plastics''. This famous line was uttered by Walter, a good friend of the father of the graduate, a young man named Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). If you are old enough to remember the year, 1967, you surely remember the film, The Graduate. This famous line has been repeated and requoted even until today. This prophetic utterance from a fictional character described so accurately the revolution that was going on at that time in the plastic industry. 

What was so important about plastics in the 1960’s? 

Today, we take plastic for granted. It is used to create the most expensive items as well as the cheapest. One of the most important plastic inventions is plastic trash bags

Originally, according to the history of plastic bags, the plastic trash bag was created to help hospitals keep tainted germ-infested garbage away from innocent people, especially children. The “Germ Theory”, which explained the connection between germs (including those found in garbage) and disease became a fact after many experiments and experiences in the medical field. Before the development of the Polio vaccine, the plastic trash bag was a crucial tool in the prevention of Polio. 

So, why is it that plastic trash bags are currently getting a bad rap?  

Our environmental activist friends are so hostile to the great plastic garbage bag. Do they know or have they learned what our planet was like prior to the introduction of the plastic trash bag? Can they deny the toxic waste and disease-causing germs that were rampant in neighborhoods and towns a hundred years ago? 

Environmentalists are claiming that one of the issues that upsets them specifically, is that most plastic trash bags are not biodegradable. However, in recent years, environment-friendly bags have come on the market, like the ones that are made from recycled plastic or others that are 100% compostable. Though many people malign plastic bags for facilitating environmental concerns, biodegradable trash bags are praiseworthy. 

Who invented the plastic trash bag?

Harry Wasylyk, a Canadian inventor from Winnipeg, Manitoba is usually acknowledged as the inventor of the plastic trash bag as it is known today. Along with Larry Hansen of Lindsay, Ontario the first green polyethylene bag was produced. So, when were trash bags invented? The first garbage bag was created in Wasylyk’s home during the 1950’s. Winnipeg General Hospital was their first customer. Union Carbide heard of this invention and started producing plastic trash bags as well. Eventually, Union Carbide bought out Wasylyk & Hansen and began making garbage bags from leftover polyethylene resin at its Montreal plant. They introduced these bags for home use under the name Glad Garbage bags, in the late 1960’s. This new creation became such a great success as it found its way into many homes and businesses.

The first trash bags were not eco-friendly. In 1971, another Canadian, a chemist from Toronto, James Guillet, developed a plastic material that decomposes in direct sunlight. 

When we learn how early Americans disposed of their refuge, we will appreciate the trash bags that are available today. Early American colonists, commonly buried their trash, burned it or threw it onto the streets where garbage overflowed and was eaten by animals. Garbage rotted in ditches, attracting flies and bugs. Dirty sewage was mixed into the drinking water causing disease. 

In fact, in 1834, the state of West Virginia outlawed the hunting of vultures because these birds were helpful by eating the city’s garbage. Interestingly enough, turkey vultures and black vultures were brought into the state of New Jersey, by government officials, to clean up its roads from dead deer, dead squirrels, and dead racoons. These birds do a pretty nice job getting rid of the roadkill quickly and efficiently. But back then the filth was so bad, that even the White House was infested with rats and cockroaches as were most other buildings in Washington, D.C. 

Since the garbage problem was so huge, another unhealthy way of disposing garbage was introduced in New York City. The government created a special pier along the East River exclusively for throwing garbage into it. Try and imagine residents and business backing their garbage bins and emptying them out into to the water. Besides for the awful smell that it caused, debris began to fill the bottom of the river. Over many years this solution deemed to be an environmental disaster. 

Here are some comments from people who remember the pre plastic garbage bag times. 

“By pickup day, everyone’s cans smelled so badly that the odor could be detected from far away.” 

“You had to wash out your kitchen trash cans and disinfect them quite often to prevent terrible odors.” 

New Yorkers have come a long way from the past. Today, a private group is working very hard on the river’s cleanup by bringing an awareness through adding a water-filtering floating pool in the East River. The color or the outer rim of the pool change, depending on the water quality. Besides for benefiting the local environment, it functions as a live water quality analysis which tells locals when the water is suitable for swimming in the East River. Pathogens, temperature, clarity salinity, oxygen, pH, flow direction, flow speed, and tide are the some of elements which are measured and displayed on the live dashboard. 

In past times, many towns would bring their trash to the “town dump”. This was an outdoor dump located away from the rivers and water sources. In 1934, the first American landfill was opened in Fresno, California, modeled after the concept of a “sanitary landfill” that was born in England. They would alternate layers of waste and soil, to reduce bad smells and fires. The immediate threat of disease was still rampant, and the world was desperate for a new approach to the garbage crisis. 

Now let's close our eyes and try to imagine the world in the 1950’s without plastic trash bags. Yes, there were the metal garbage cans that are still used today. Without plastic bags to put the garbage into, the metal cans became smelly and messy. Even if paper bags were used for the garbage, they almost immediately would become wet and sloppy. This is without rain. If it did rain, then not only would the paper bags disintegrate but the garbage as well and it became difficult for the garbage men to remove the messy garbage from the can. 

Without proper plastic waste bags what happened with infectious waste? 

Forget about the problem of at home trash and debris, what did hospitals and doctors do with medical waste? Perhaps a household member was sick, and a local physician paid a house visit. Often a wound bandage needed to be replaced and the old cloth was removed and thrown into the nearest waste basket. If we were to analyze this piece of medical waste, we might find bloodborne pathogens and other infectious material. This made it very difficult to contain the spread of disease. Epidemics were much harder to contain primarily due to the poor handling of infectious waste. Today, there is a government agency called OSHA, which oversees that all environments are safe for patients and it’s worker. Businesses who are not compliant with current laws can be shut down or issued hefty fines. 

Let’s learn about how plastic trash bags are created 

In the year 1942, low density polyethylene was developed. Soft and waterproof, these originate from little resin beads. These tough resin beads become bags of plastic. Hard pellets of polyethylene are heated to a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius. The molten polyethylene is put under high pressure and mixed with other ingredients to provide color and make the plastic moldable. Once this plastic mixture is cooled, it is cut into appropriate individual length and sealed on one end to make the garbage bag. Then, static electricity infuses these bags so they can be folded on top of each other. They are either cut or perforated at the correct length and sealed on one side. They are now ready to be packaged. 

Now all you environmentalist read this carefully. Is it not true that the invention of the plastic trash bag has reduced serious and fatal diseases? 

  • Is it not true that homes, hospitals and offices are less infested with rodents and bugs?
  • Why would you want to percolate serious illnesses when we now are producing biodegradable bags? 

Since the invention of the trash bag, we no longer need to live with the smell and volume of garbage. It is a rare sight today to see animals eating garbage in the streets. Yes, it does sometimes happen when a garbage can without the bag tied correctly gets turned over. Let's remember how the world looked before the introduction of the plastic trash bag. Vultures, hogs and smelly metal garbage pails are symbols of the past. Please don’t pass up this modern convenience that can and will prevent your loved ones from getting sick. Be thankful that we are slowly learning how to cope with the increased garbage production. No longer must we contend with people throwing garbage on the streets or in the rivers. Ask anyone who lived in those times, for sure they would bless this great invention.

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