Although mostly filmed on a Hollywood sound stage, the ’90s sitcom “Mad About You” managed to convincingly evoke the New York City of that era. So it was shocking to watch it the other day and see the main characters bringing their groceries home in paper bags. Were New Yorkers really using paper grocery bags in the early 1990s?
It turns out that what became known as the T-shirt plastic bag was invented in the mid-1960s, and the first plastic grocery bags were introduced in America in 1979. The bags were not an immediate hit, but their advantages were obvious — they were cheaper than paper bags and more durable, especially in the rain. By the end of the 1990s their conquest of the grocery checkout was absolute.
The durability and ubiquity of plastic grocery bags quickly became a problem. In New York and other cities discarded plastic bags that have long outlived their usefulness flutter from tree limbs like banners, and roll through the streets like tumbleweeds.
Approximately 100 billion single-use plastic bags, typically made of nonrenewable fossil fuels, are used in the U.S. each year, and less than 10% of them are recycled, according to the Consortium to Reinvent the Retail Bag. Also: The average plastic grocery bag is used for just 12 minutes, but it can last for up to 1,000 years.
Dollar General Corp., Wakefern Food Corp. and Albertsons Cos. are among the retailers that have recently joined the consortium’s Beyond the Bag initiative, which aims to find an alternative to the plastic grocery bag.
The project was launched in July with Walmart, Target, CVS Health, Walgreens and Kroger Co. as founding members.
Meanwhile, efforts to deal with the plastic grocery bag problem, at least in New York, are not going that well. Single-use plastic bags are now supposed to be banned in the city, but plenty of stores still offer them. And there is still no shortage of plastic bags fluttering around on city streets.
The consortium says it will solicit innovative alternatives from around the world, with an initial focus on “game-changing sustainable bag solutions” that can be implemented in the United States.
Here’s hoping they find one.