Single-Use Plastics 101
Here’s everything you need to know about the most prevalent (and avoidable) kind of plastic waste: the kind made to be tossed in mere minutes.
A straw in our iced coffee, a plastic bag to carry groceries, a wrapper on a candy bar: taken individually, each seems harmless. These modern conveniences are so commonplace—and so quickly thrown out—that they hardly register in our minds. But single-use plastics come with an environmental impact- one that we’ll be paying off for years to come. Our plastic addiction is having a devastating impact on our oceans, our wildlife, and our health.
What Are Single-Use Plastics?
Put simply, Single-use plastics, or disposable plastics, are used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These items are things like plastic bags, straws, coffee stirrers, soda and water bottles and most food packaging.
Plastic—a chain of synthetic polymers, essentially—was invented in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that its popularity skyrocketed. Manufacturers began replacing traditionally paper or glass staples with lighter or more durable and affordable plastic alternatives; plastic jugs replaced milk jars, for instance. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been produced.
There are many uses for plastic that are not only reasonable but important, such as surgical gloves, or straws for those with disabilities. But these cases make up a small fraction of single-use plastic.
Is Single-Use Plastic Bad?
Single-use plastics may represent the epitome of today’s throwaway culture. The U.N. Environment reports just nine percent of the world’s nine billion tons of plastic has been recycled. Most of our plastic ends up in landfills, our oceans and waterways, and the environment. Plastics do not biodegrade. Instead they slowly break down into smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics.
Reducing plastic use is the most effective means of avoiding this waste. Carrying reusable bags and bottles is one great way to avoid single-use plastics in our day-to-day lives.
Left alone, plastics don’t really break down; they just break up. Over time, sun and heat slowly turn plastics into smaller and smaller pieces until they eventually become what are known as microplastics. These microscopic plastic fragments are hard to detect—and are just about everywhere. Some microplastics are even small by design, like the microbeads used in facial scrubs or the microfibers in polyester clothing. They end up in the water, eaten by wildlife, and inside our bodies. For wildlife, microplastics can be particularly dangerous; when eaten they can easily accumulate inside an animal’s body and cause health issues, like punctured organs or fatal intestinal blockages.
What can we do about it?
Individual choices- and the collective shifts they bring about—add up quickly. Making just one simple swap, like purchasing a reusable water bottle, can spare the environment hundreds of plastic bottles each year. Here are a few more tips for ridding your life (and your community) of single-use plastics for good.
- Switch to reusable or cloth shopping bags instead of plastic bags
- Bring your own coffee mugs and avoid establishments that don’t offer non-plastic options.
- Stop buying non-recycled plastic bottles and plastic straws
- Support efforts to reduce our dependence on single-use plastics.
- Recycle as much as possible.
- Buy items in bulk to reduce plastic packaging