In Remembrance of the Plastic Bag, May It Rest in Peace

The once omnipresent New York mainstay has passed.

It is widely credited as being born in the early 1960s to Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin.

Though its teenage years were nothing remarkable, it had a breakout mention of its family tree in the 1967 film "The Graduate." From there, its popularity surged, and it became a regular fixture in the supermarket scene by the early 1970s.

In the latter years of the century, it became a renowned fixture in all retail outlets. Though it took a lot of sh*t, quite literally, from New York's canine population, it stood out as a lucky symbol of the finest street produce one could possibly procure in Chinatown. The plastic bag could carry a wet swimsuit home from a sandy beach day without making a single gripe; although, on average, it was discarded only 12 minutes after use.

It will be remembered for its standout cameo performance in 1999 film "American Beauty."

Over time, the plastic bag's infamy eclipsed the golden moments. In the early 2000s, it often got stuck up in trees and is still there. And if a given bag didn't get snagged in a tree, it clogged municipal drain pipes or, further afield, was gobbled up by marine life after it ended up in the ocean. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimated that its relatives—all ocean plastic—would exceed the ocean's fish by weight by the year 2050.

While many assumed it would quietly fade away, in the ground, after death, the public soon learned that it could take as long as 1,000 years to degrade. Meanwhile, it bred more than 10 billion of its own each year, in New York City alone.

After these facts came to light, the plastic bag's days were numbered. Some cities put it swiftly out of its misery, while political sparring between NYC and Albany meant it lasted a short while longer in New York.

It is survived by straws, clamshells, water bottles, bottle caps, cigarette butts, saran wrap, bubble wrap, soda rings, red silo cups, yogurt containers, as well as its half-sibling the diaper.

In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Natural Resources Defense Council, safeguarding the Earth—its people, its plants and animals and the natural systems on which all life depends for the past 50 years.


During her time at the Mayor's Office and the Department of Sanitation, Elizabeth Balkan worked on various legislative initiatives, including the plastic bag bill, NYC's styrofoam ban, and the NYC commercial organics mandate. She still carries a reusable orange DSNY 0x30 shopping bag, though quite tattered, with pride.