engineering, physical experiment, physics, short, silly

Crappy Plastic Bags

Plastic grocery bags suck, and for many reasons. They’re light enough to be carried away by a particularly motivated fruit fly, which means they turn into litter very easily. And since they shred easily into tiny, tiny pieces, they’re probably an excellent source of plastic pollution, which is looking more and more like a major problem every day.

Luckily, the flimsy grocery bags I’m talking about are made of LDPE: low-density polyethylene. And while LDPE isn’t exactly the kind of thing you wanna put on a sandwich, as far as plastics go, it’s relatively mild. Chemically, it’s very similar to wax. Unlike, say PVC and polystyrene, LDPE is a lot less prone to breaking down into scary aromatic and chlorinated hydrocarbons. Plus, it’s not full of the slightly scary plasticizers found in many other plastics.

But my real issue with grocery bags is that they suck. They’re pretty shitty at the one thing they’re made for, which is holding groceries. This morning, on my way to work, I stopped to get some milk. The jug couldn’t’ve weighed more than three or four pounds, but that didn’t stop it from bursting right through the bottom and falling on the floor. I realize I’m making myself sound like a cranky old man when I say this, but I don’t remember plastic bags being quite that fragile when I was younger. And I would’ve noticed if they were, on account of the number of times I tied a grocery bag to a string and tried to fly it like a kite. They didn’t last a long time doing that, but I’d be willing to wager the modern ones would rip before you could get the kite string tied on.

But I’m going to do what crotchety old men never seem to: I’m going to back up my whining with evidence. Here is my evidence.

Crappy Plastic Bag

I’m sorry for the godawful picture, but it gets the point across. What you’re looking at is a pair of lower-mid-range digital calipers, which are pretty handy for measuring things to decent accuracy and precision. The calipers are clamped down around a flat strip of grocery-bag material which has been folded three times, giving eight layers. In the name of fairness, let’s assume that the actual thickness is 0.095 millimeters: just barely thin enough that the calipers didn’t round it up to 0.1. Divide 0.095 by eight, and you get 0.011875 millimeters, or 11.875 microns. For comparison, a human hair is usually quoted in the neighborhood of between 80 and 120 microns. The one I just pulled out of my own scalp (you’re welcome) measured 50 microns. Measuring ten sheets of printer paper and dividing by ten gave me 102 microns. A dust mite turd is apparently between 5 and 20 microns. (Wikipedia says that this book says so, and while I’ll do a lot of things for my readers, I’m not reading a thousand pages to find a passage on dust mite poop.) Human cells usually range between 10 microns and 50 microns (though some get a lot larger).

To get some more perspective, an American football field is 150 yards long and 55 1/3 yards wide. If we were to cover an entire football field with a single layer of grocery bag material, the whole damn thing would only weigh 162.9 pounds (73.9 kilograms). That’s less than me. Less than the average American football player. Hell, that’s less than my dad, and he’s built like a lean twig. Imagining the horrendous suffocation hazard that sheet will pose when it inevitably blows into the stands is making me nervous.

Now, this is only one data point, admittedly. I didn’t measure the thickness of plastic bags when I was a kid (I was too busy making kites out of them, or walking around the house with a mirror pretending I was walking on the ceiling). But that seems excruciatingly thin to me. In order for a soap bubble to be iridescent, it must undergo thin-film interference. This means that, in order to reflect violet light (the shortest wavelength visible to the eye: around 380 nanometers), the bubble can be no thicker than 71 nanometers. My grocery bag is only 167 times thicker than a damned soap bubble. No wonder my groceries fell out this morning, and no wonder every time I go to the hardware store, something pokes a hole in the bag and makes my tools fall out.

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2 thoughts on “Crappy Plastic Bags

  1. You know there is a solution, reusable bags. And yeah, you have to keep track of them and remember to bring them in, but isn’t that better than spilled milk?

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