After century of brown paper, US finds new way to bag it

This year Charles Stillwell climbed out of obscurity. Little is known about the man. He was a 19th-century inventor who lived in Philadelphia, and in 1883 he took out a patent on a machine that caused a minor revolution in grocery shopping. He created the square-bottomed paper bag - a design so ingenious that it remains the standard for the present-day supermarket.

Still, the Philadelphia inventor probably would have remained a historical footnote, except that his patent is exactly 100 years old this year, and the American Paper Institute badly needs to celebrate something about the paper bag.

A quick look at the paper industry reveals why. Many sectors of the industry are suffering from overcapacity. One of the hardest hit has been kraft paper, observers say, which is used to make grocery bags, among other things. More important, Stillwell's venerable bag is getting some serious competition from a high-technology upstart - the plastic grocery bag.

The paper industry, which has already lost out to plastic in such items as dry-cleaning bags, bread wrappers, and department-store sacks, is anxious to hold on to the $750 million grocery-bag market.

Up to this point, paper has dominated. Every year, American supermarkets buy about 25 billion paper bags - 110 for every man, woman, and child in the country. Their plastic counterparts command only some 3 or 4 percent of the market.

But the plastic bag is poised to make significant inroads into America's supermarket as it already has in Canada, many observers say.

And the reasons provide an insight into the grocery business.

In a slower age, grocers packed their customers' goods in a paper cone and tied the bottom with a string. Later, grocery clerks spent their evenings gluing paper together to form bags. Then, in 1852, a Moravian schoolteacher named Francis Wolle invented a bagmaking machine. But Stillwell's square-bottomed design improved on that. It was ideally suited for the fast-paced supermarket that would spring up in the 1930s.

Since the bag stood upright, a store clerk could pack the bag more efficiently, using both hands. Today the bags still beat the plastic competition , says Mary Ellen Gowin, a consultant with the Kraft and Packaging Paper Division of the American Paper Institute, because of the square-bottom design. They don't require special racks at the checkout counter as do plastic bags, and they are more likely to stay upright in the trunk of a car.

But, technologically speaking, plastic has the edge.

The last major breakthrough for paper bags came in 1910, when an obscure chemist strengthened the paper by changing the solution in which it was cooked. But in the late 1970s, the availability of some plastic resins - and breakthroughs in producing others - quickly made the plastic grocery bag economically feasible.

For the shopper, the handles of plastic bags make them easy to carry, an especially important feature for urban shoppers who walk to the store. They also save time at the checkout counter (where retailers are especially eager not to delay customers), because they eliminate double-bagging of paper bags. Studies by the Los Angeles-based St. Regis Corporation show that double-bagging occurs 20 percent of the time.

There are several advantages for the grocer, as well. Plastic bags are lighter and take up less space, says Charles Chrispell, general manager of the retail packaging business unit of St. Regis. It takes six trucks filled with paper bags to equal one truckful of plastic, he adds, saving up to 85 percent of expensive warehouse space.

Then too, bags are costly, he says, and represent the third-largest overhead expense for the grocer after labor and energy. But it remains to be seen whether plastic or paper costs more. Prices for both petrochemical and paper products have been depressed, observers say.

By some estimates, plastic grocery bags will captured 20 percent of the US market by 1985 - perhaps 50 percent by the 1990s.

The actual trend, however, may not be a plastic vs. paper battle. Several paper companies, including St. Regis, have recently expanded into plastics.

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