Single-use plastics is one of the greatest examples of how our consumer culture is having a long term negative impact on the planet. The mass production of plastic has caused an enormous pollution problem. Every year, we produce about 300 million tonnes of plastic worldwide—about half of this amount is to make single-use plastics. More than 91% of plastic is not recycled, so it ends up littered across the planet on land, in the air, and ultimately in the ocean. While recycling measures have attempted to re-use some of this waste, single-use plastics are still an enormous environmental problem that needs some serious action.
What are single use plastics?
Single-use plastics—such as straws, plastic bags, Styrofoam takeaway containers, bottles, and bottle caps—are meant to be used once and then immediately discarded. They are often used for packaging and service ware, including food wrappers, bubble wrap, and bags. Plastics are used to make cigarette butts, which are the most common single-use plastic waste in the environment around the world.
Single-use plastics are primarily made from fossil fuel-based chemicals, also known as petrochemicals, that are combined into a chain of synthetic polymers. Certain types of plastics take hundreds if not thousands of years to biodegrade, such as plastic bottles that can take up to 450 years or longer to (somewhat) decompose. These plastics only break down into smaller particles. What was once lauded as a breakthrough—plastics’ durability and resistance to degradation—has now become an environmental nightmare.
Since the 1950s, over 8.3 billion metric tonnes of plastics have been manufactured with about half being produced in the last 15 years. Despite calls to decrease single-use plastic consumption and some outright bans on single use plastic coming into force, petrochemical companies are projected to increase annual production to 1,124 million tons by 2050 as compared to 311 million tons in 2014. Also, about 98% of single-use plastic produced is made from “virgin” fossil-fuel-based feedstock rather than from recycled materials.
The environmental cost of single-use plastics
Single-use plastics have an enormous environmental cost to produce them as well as for disposal. Images of sea turtles with plastic straws stuck in their nostrils or disposable masks littered on beaches are powerful, visual mediums that demonstrate the single-use plastic problem plaguing the environment. Millions of tons of plastic waste is disposed of in the environment or shipped to other locations where it is burned or dumped, often in poor and vulnerable communities.
Additionally, the removal of forested land for oil extraction and pipeline construction adds to single-use plastics’ environmental footprint. Single-use plastics mostly end up in landfills—the latter accounts for over 15% of methane emissions, another powerful GHG. They accumulate on the sides of the streets and litter our lands. Eventually, over 6.3 million kilos of single-use plastics end up in the ocean, contributing to the great garbage patch in the Pacific ocean.
Single-use plastics contribute to the climate change crisis due to their fossil-fuel based supply chain. When making single-use plastics, the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels emits an annual estimate of 12.5 to 13.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Manufacturers of single-use plastics consume 6% of all global oil supply, which is estimated to increase to 20% by 2050. Also, the refining of plastics releases 184 to 213 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, about what 45 million passenger vehicles emit each year. By 2050, single-use plastics are projected to account for 10% of worldwide GHG emissions. The production, use, and disposal of single-use plastics made from fossil fuel-based materials (petrochemicals) is forecasted to grow to 19 % of the global carbon budget by 2040.
After disposal, plastics accumulate faster in the environment than they decompose. Due to their tough chemical structure, single-use plastics do not really biodegrade but break down into very small plastic particles, called microplastics. These tiny plastic fragments are no more than 5 millimeters long and are very hard to detect in the environment. Microplastics accumulate in our food and in the bodies of land and aquatic species. These tiny microplastics pollute all over our planet, from the deepest depths of the Mariana Trench to highest peak on Mount Everest and to the secluded Pyrenees mountains.
What happens to single use plastic after it is disposed of?
Single-use plastics either end up in landfills, as litter, or possibly at a recycling facility. Often, plastics are burned at a waste facility. In 2019, 130 million tonnes of single-use plastics were thrown away by consumers.h About 35% of the plastics disposed of were burned, 31% buried in landfills, and 19% dumped into the ocean and lands. Only 9% of all single-use plastics are actually recycled.
Every year, approximately 14 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean, with about 80% of it originating from land. Covering an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean, the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” has over a trillion plastic marine debris that circulates across surface waters and down to the ocean floor. The plastic debris injures and kills marine life, either from being tangled or through ingestion. And as the plastic decomposes, it leaches toxic chemicals that kills aquatic life and coral reefs.
Also, the tiny microplastic particles are absorbed by organic life, which means they are in our food and our organs too. Human exposure to these microplastics and chemicals to make single-use plastics can cause endocrine system disruption, hormonal imbalances, reproductive issues, and possibly cancer. We have a major single-use plastics problem that is literally harming our health, species, and our planet.
Can you recycle single use plastics and how?
Australia has recently passed several measures to ban single-use plastics—seven out of eight Australian states and territories have committed so far. By early 2023, most Australian states will have banned most single-use plastics. The varying types of single-use plastics banned include plastic bags, straws, drink stirrers, cutlery, polystyrene food and drink containers, plates and bowls, cotton bud sticks, microbeads, heavyweight plastic bags, fruit and veggie bags, plastic cups and lids, coffee cups containing plastic, helium balloons, and plastic takeaway containers. Some of these state-level measures began as early as July 1, 2021, with others starting in 2022, 2023, 2024, and 2025. New South Wales passed the Plastic Reduction and Circular Economy Act 2021 (NSW), making it the last Australian jurisdiction to implement a ban against single-use plastic bags. To date, Tasmania and Northern Territory have limited their single-use bans to plastic bags. Most plastic bag bans apply to lightweight bags that are 35 microns or less in thickness, but there are exceptions as well.
National-level targets to ban single-use plastics have also been identified. Known as National Packing Targets, the goal is to phase out problematic plastics by 2025. Under the National Plastics Plan, the Commonwealth Government intends to phase out loose fill, moulded polystyrene packaging, and non-compostable plastics by July 2022 as well as increase recycling, find alternatives to plastic, and cut pollution from plastic cigarette butts. In total, the plan contains 38 different actions to amend the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, which would aim to reduce plastic pollution. It would also include efforts to support coordinated, global action to reduce marine plastic pollution through the United Nations.
How can individuals reduce their use of single use plastics?
Individual consumers can take important steps to reduce their use of single-use plastics. Here are some methods:
- Carry re-useable bags when shopping
- Use bamboo or reusable utensils for take-out dining
- Drink out of metal or glass straws
- Re-use water bottles and buy reusable drinking water vessels
- Repurpose old bottles, plastics bags, and containers
- Grocery shop at a bulk foods stores
- Avoid overly packaged foods, like pre-cut or pre-packaged fruit and veg
- Reduce your own carbon footprint to cut down on GHG emissions
We need to drastically reduce our single-use plastic consumption to save the planet due to their enormous environmental harms to our lands, waterways, ocean, health, and climate. Individuals can take action to protect their environment by offsetting their carbon footprint. Check out Go Neutral’s carbon offsets and projects to find out how.
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