Think More



Plastic Bag


Mr. Thulin’s Original Intention

Let us turn the time back to the 50s of the last century.

A Swedish engineer, Sten Thulin, saw that many trees are chopped down because of the overuse of paper shopping bags. Couldn’t bear to see that anymore, an idea came to his mind. If there was a light, thin and reusable replacement, wouldn’t that help the environment to keep its greenery? In 1959, he successfully invented plastic shopping bags, which are the “Vest Plastic Bags” today.

“He always carried one (plastic bag) in his pocket folded up. You know what we’re all being encouraged to do today, which is to take your own bags to the shop, he was doing it back in the 70s and 80s just naturally. Why wouldn’t you?”

– Thulin’s son, Raoul Thulin, talking about his father during an interview by the BBC news.

Why wouldn’t you (reuse)……?

That is a good question. Since plastic bags are light, durable and cheap, they are very suitable for reusing. Yet, Thulin couldn’t have imagined then, the problem of plastic bags is exactly their perks. Frankly, plastic bags are too cheap. Though their raw material is from petroleum that takes millions of years to be formed, each bag only costs a few pence to make. In human logic, cheap things shouldn’t be cherished, and can even be disposed of immediately. On average, a plastic shopping bag is used for 12 minutes only before disposal.

The durability of plastic bags has then become a curse for the Earth.

If Thulin is conscious in his afterlife, seeing his invention turning into trashes in every corner of the world, would he sign?


From Durable to Disposable: Merchants’ Alchemy

When plastic shopping bags were first introduced, seizing the stable spot occupied by paper shopping bags wasn’t an easy job. For instance, when cashiers used saliva to wet their fingers to open plastic bags, customers would feel disgusted; Another example is that plastic bags couldn’t stand upright as a paper bag does.

Since it was impossible to break through consumers’ mentality instantly, the smart merchants came up with a different plan. They try to make money from the owners of supermarkets. The cost of a plastic bag is only one-third to one-fourth of a paper bag. Financial inducement was the best thesis to persuade the owners. In 1982, the two biggest supermarkets in the US, Kroger and Safeway, were finally embraced by Vest Shopping Bags, other markets swiftly followed.

Plastic bag merchants knew, if everyone uses plastic bags and keeps reusing them, the merchants’ pockets will not inflate. Hence, a new marketing strategy, which is to encourage the disposal of plastic bags after a single use, was adopted. The plastic bag calamity tolled the death knell for the environment and lives.

It has been 60 years since the existence of plastic bags. Today, around 5 trillion plastic bags are used annually around the world. That is counted from tenth, hundred, thousand, ten thousand, hundred thousand, million, ten million, hundred million, thousand million, billion, ten billion, hundred billion, thousand billion, to which 12 zeros are behind a “5”. Some plastic bags disposed of are landfilled for hundreds and thousands of years. Some ended up in nature threatening marine and wild habitats. A hundred thousand marine animals are being killed by plastic bags annually.


When Plastic Bag Becomes “National Flag & Emblem”

Being disposable, plastic bags quickly become pervasive on Earth. Some are discarded, accidentally scattered, entwined in wind, found on trees, on mountain trails, and down in the ocean…… The Irish ironically named them as “Flags”; South Africans playfully called them as “Emblem”. Many countries started to think, how heavy the cost they are willing to bear to exchange for the convenience brought by plastic bags.

Forerunner of promoting the banning of plastic bag in Bangladesh: Shahriar Hossain
Credited to: Dr. Mao Da

Years ago, I met Professor Shahriar Hossain at an international conference. He participated in a campaign to push Bangladesh to be the first country to ban plastic bags in 2002. It led to the closure of 315 plastic bag factories. That was a long fight, he adhered to this for almost 30 years. Enraging the factory owners, Professor Hossain received many threatening emails and phone calls. He was even almost killed on the street. Though Bangladesh is still facing some adversities in banning plastic bags, it is stunning for Hong Kong people. We have shared Bangladesh’s plastic banning story here .

Ireland, which called plastic bags as “Flags”, has implemented the plastic bag levy in 2002. Each bag is charged for 0.15 euros (1.5 HKD). In the first year of implementation, the usage of plastic bags was dropped by 95%. South Africa also banned the usage of plastic shopping bags that are thinner than 0.024mm in the following year. In 2004, they also stepped up their measures by charging environmental fees from plastic bag manufacturers and importers, each bag is charged for around 0.04 HKD. Violators will receive a penalty of 14,000 USD or 10 years of imprisonment. Demark, which has implemented the plastic bag levy law as early as in 1993 will increase their levy in 2021. They are also planning to ban the use of non-reusable thin plastic bags in the future. Currently, each Danish people only disposes of 4 plastic bags per year on average.


Hong Kong Plastic Bag Levy

2In 2005, to set up the plastic bag levy system, the financial secretary of Hong Kong at that time, Henry Tang, published the number of plastic bags that were disposed of in Hong Kong daily: 33 million bags, which was around 5 bags per person each day.

In July of 2009, the first stage of the plastic bag levy scheme was implemented in 3000 retail shops. For example, in big franchised supermarkets, convenience stores, healthcare and cosmetic shops. After a year, the annual usage of plastic shopping bags was dropped by 77%, from 657 million to 153 million.

Although the levy was effective, the policy had limited coverage. In April of 2015, Hong Kong adopted the plastic shopping bag charging scheme comprehensively to approximately a hundred thousand of shops, covering retail industries and service industries that also sell products. From the undulating blue curve, we can see that the number of plastic bags disposed of sharply decreased after the implementation of the policy. However, there was a “V-shape” rebound in the year after, and the number was increasing continuously in the following years.

In 2018, Hong Kong people threw away 4.51 billion plastic shopping bags in total (each person threw at least 1.6 bags per day). Comparing to the data in 2005, which 8 billion bags were disposed of, there was a 40% reduction. Shall we break out the bubbly and celebrate? Hold your horses! The number was 1.5% higher than that in 2010 when the policy was first launched, and the number of plastic bags disposed of was 4.44 billion. In fact, there’re several types of retail outlets that their consumption of plastic bags started to rebound. For example, convenience stores had their consumption dropped from 90 million in 2009 to 15 million after legislation. However, the number rose substantially to 50 million in 2018.

Apart from the full picture, this link also provides plastic bags disposal data from different types of retail outlets.

Bakeries, in 2018 alone, disposed of 345 million plastic bags. The number is much greater than the sum of plastic bags thrown away by supermarkets, convenience stores, and health and cosmetic shops, in which a total of 150 million plastic bags were disposed of by them.

The trend of using disposable plastic products in restaurants and delicatessens is also concerning. Comparing to 2009, Their newest plastic bag disposable rate was surged by 47%. Takeaway service is more prevalent these days, we can expect that this problem will only get worse.

Unexpectedly, the seemingly harmless “Others” category composed 80% of the total plastic bag disposed of. What are the “Others”? They are the plastic bags that are not labeled nor categorized. They include plastic bags from wet markets and grocery shops.


No plastic, using reusable bags is better?

Do you remember that on average, each Danes only uses 4 plastic shopping bags per year?

What was not mentioned is that: Each Danish resident disposed of 70 reusable bags per year on average.

The next question is: After banning plastic bags, is using reusable bags a better choice?

If you reuse it repeatedly and only use a few bags until they are broken, then, please continue using the reusable bags you have. It doesn’t matter if they are paper bags, non-woven bags, or fabric bags.

But if you perceive these paper and non-woven bags as disposables, throwing them away after a single use; or as fast fashion accessories, getting a new one at every opportunity, then the reusable bags in your hand is not eco-friendly at all. And it is even worse than using plastic bags.

Principles of using plastic bags that we suggest:

If you can choose not to use it, avoid it

If you used it, you should reuse it

If it can’t be reused, then clean it and recycle it

If it can’t be recycled, dispose of it properly

They are suitable for all types of bags. In brief, use the bags that you have wisely, no matter if they are plastic bags, paper bags, non-woven bags, or fabric bags.





Observe how many plastic bags are a consumer carrying in a wet market in the evening. Which of the bags were not necessary? How many people bring their own reusable bag/ trolley? Why didn’t they bring their bag? Can it be overcome?