Why is Single Use Plastic Bad?
You have probably heard the term single-use plastic. You have also likely heard of the island of garbage in the ocean, and that many people are pushing to ban plastic straws.
While this information certainly floats around, it can all be a little confusing. Why is single-use plastic bad? Will banning straws actually help? What is the situation and why is it such a big deal? Should it be? Is there anything we can do that will make a difference?
Let’s break this down.
What Single-use Plastic Is And Why It’s A Problem
Single-use plastic are items that we use once and then discard. These are items like plastic shopping bags, plastic cutlery, plastic cups, drinking bottles, bottle caps, coffee cup lids, cigarette butts, straws and stirrers, take-away containers, and food wrappers.
There are other plastic items in our lives, like Tupperware, plastic outdoor furniture, and plastic toys that are used for years before tossed away. Plastic is always a problem, but these items are less of an issue than the single-use plastic that comes in and out of our lives so quickly.
Plastic is made from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels take millions of years to form, sometimes hundreds of millions of years. They are non-renewable resources. In other words, the fossil fuels we currently have are all we will ever have available to us on this planet. That makes them valuable. And we are using them in single-use plastic items.
Those items are then typically packaged in more plastic and then shipped to us, which uses more resources. We commonly use single-use plastic items for a few minutes and then discard them.
But that’s not the end of the story for these items.
What Happens After We Throw Away Single-use Plastic
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade. Paper breaks down in about two to six weeks. Over the course of around 1,000 years, plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic called microplastics, where it contaminates our soil and water.
Once plastic is out there, animals consume it. This happens with both microplastics and recently tossed away items. Turtles, dolphins, and other species commonly mistake plastic bags for food. Animals are then found dead with stomachs bloated and full of plastic.
Even in its smaller, microplastic form, the consumption of plastic is often deadly. The toxic chemicals that contaminate the soil and water cause many health problems, including cancer, birth defects, heart and lung problems, and the list goes on.
We then consume these animals, and plastic enters the human food chain.
An image of a plastic straw stuck in a sea turtle’s nose went viral. This image likely led to the online campaign demanding the banning of plastic straws. Unfortunately, that image is not an uncommon situation. Plastic isn’t only consumed by wildlife, it strangles and chokes them as it pollutes their environments.
According to UN Environment, half of all plastic we produce is single-use plastic. We produce 300 million tons of plastic globally every year. A considerable portion of that ends up in the oceans.
How Plastic Is Affecting The Ocean
You’ve likely heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Unfortunately, the images you’ve seen are outdated. The situation has gotten much worse. Oceanographers have discovered five major, separate ocean garbage dumps--so far. These five patches of plastic are like plastic smog in the ocean. They have mixtures of newly disposed of plastic and plastic that has partially broken up into microplastics. They are like enormous toxic whirlpools of plastic breaking apart and spreading through the water.
How Much Plastic Is Really In the Ocean?
It’s difficult to put a number on how much is currently in the water because it’s hard to track microplastics, how much is deeper down, and we keep discovering new patches of plastic. With the data we have at this point, scientists estimate that there are 150 million metric tons currently in the sea, and that we are adding eight million metric tons every year to that number.
That number can be difficult to picture. Imagine a garbage truck full of plastic being dumped into the ocean, every single minute.
Even worse is the fact that our consumption is going up. Our populations increase and manufacturers find more cause to use plastic, and so more ends up in the water.
Ocean Conservancy estimates that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. In only ten years the amount currently in the ocean will have tripled. They’ve also reported that plastic has been found inside all sea turtles, and 60 percent of all seabirds.
Once the plastic is in the ocean, we are finding it to be impossible to clean it out.
How This is Going to Affect Us
We don’t yet know all the ways the plastic situation will impact human life. This has never happened before. We have only been mass producing plastic for around 50 years. According to Global Citizen, half of the plastic currently on Earth was made after 2003. This is a new problem for us.
What we do know, is that plastic is toxic. It’s harmful to human health. And we definitely shouldn’t eat it.
When we consume small amounts of styrofoam products, we have problems ranging from damage to nervous systems, lungs, and reproductive organs.
Of course we know that we shouldn’t eat a styrofoam container or swallow a plastic bag. The problem is that the fish and animals consuming this toxic garbage are then eaten by us.
There is also the problem that the toxic plastic smog in the oceans affects the amount of oxygen marine plants produce and how much carbon dioxide they absorb. We all know that plants, especially trees, produce oxygen. What you may not know is that 70 percent of our oxygen actually comes from marine plants.
If the toxic chemicals from plastic choke off the marine life, we have a serious problem for our survival.
Why Recycling Your Single-Use Plastic Isn’t Good Enough
Recycling is good, yes, but cutting down on the amount of single-use plastic you use in the first place is much better.
At this point, we are only recycling nine percent of the plastic we use. That means the other 91 percent is ending up in our water and soil. Recycling that plastic means we can use it for other things instead of it becoming toxic sludge. Recycling is definitely a good thing and something we should all focus on doing more of.
It’s not good enough, though. We still need to cut down on our use of single-use plastic. This is for a couple reasons. One of them is that the materials we are making plastic from are finite. The more new plastic we make the more fossil fuels we are using.
The other big reason is that the quality of plastic degrades once we’ve used it. This means that recycled plastic water bottles aren’t used to make more bottles. This recycling plastic is used to make things like carpets. That’s a good thing because it means we didn’t make the carpet with freshly made plastic, but if we’re still using more single-use plastic bottles, then the problem keeps mounting. Simply put, we are using too much for recycling to be enough to take care of this problem for us. We need to recycle more, but we need to do more than that. We need to greatly diminish our use of single-use plastics.
What You Can Do To Help With The Plastic Problem
1. Raise Awareness
The first thing all of us can do is raise awareness. The more people understand about why using less plastic is important, the bigger impact we can have. Never underestimate how much good it can do for you to make changes in your own life, every person counts. But the more information is spread and the more people who cut down on plastic, the farther reaching your own actions can spread. This is how real change happens.
2. Help Bring About Responsible Plastic Laws
The next big thing you can do is write letters to your local representatives and vote appropriately. When politicians get involved in single-use plastics, a lot of far-reaching changes can happen. For example, in 1971 Oregon was the first state to pass a bottle bill. When people buy bottled waters or sodas, they pay a small deposit on every container. When consumers have used their bottles, they bring them back to the store and get their money back. This kind of legislation encourages recycling on a wide scale.
Similarly, there have been plastic bag fees at stores, or bans all together. UN Environment has found that 127 countries have some form of regulation on single-use plastic bags. In the United States, California, Hawaii and New York have made laws banning single-use plastic bags and putting fees on paper bags to encourage people to bring their own reusable bags to the store with them.
These kinds of laws not only force regulation, they raise awareness. When people run into these situations at stores, it makes them wonder why it’s a law and they become more educated on the issue.
3. Recycle As Much As Possible
The first thing to do is research what is and isn’t recyclable in your town and local area. Every city has its own rules and they change all the time. Many people don’t realise what the full laws in their area are because we make assumptions based on places we’ve lived in the past, rules our city used to have, or because the packaging indicates it should be recyclable.
For example, in many cities single-use plastic shopping bags aren’t recyclable in their weekly recycle bins. In these cases, it is common for the store you got them at to have a bin for recycling them in.
Research what the options are in your area so you’re making the most responsible recycling choices.
4. Cut Down On Your Single-Use Plastic Usage
Be a conscious shopper. Once you look through your routine, you’ll find single-use plastic everywhere. Start watching out for it, and piece by piece, find ways to replace the single-use items you commonly use with reusable ones.
A great deal of the single-use plastic in your routine can be found in your food and drinks.
- Use reusable shopping bags instead of the plastic ones at the store.
- Avoid single-use plastic bottles. Instead, invest in a glass or stainless steel reusable water bottle you can carry with you.
- Buy reusable sandwich bags.
- Avoid plastic straws. Instead, purchase a glass straw and container. You can bring your own straw with you.
- Buy items in bulk. This will reduce the amount of plastic packaging.
- Purchase bar soap instead of soap that comes in a plastic bottle.
- Eat more fresh, whole foods instead of foods that come in plastic packaging. You’ll be healthier, and so will the environment.
Once you’ve made different product choices, it’s time to start making different company choices. In the same way that it matters who you vote for, it matters where you spend your dollar. Support companies that make moves toward banning plastic and avoid companies that use it.
Avoid coffee companies that don't offer non-plastic options. Coffee is one of the biggest areas where single-use plastic is used on a daily basis, with straws, lids, and cutlery. If your favourite coffee house only supplies single-use plastic, talk to them about the issue. You can also ask about bringing in your own mug. Another option is to drink your coffee at the company, where they will have reusable dishes instead of the take-away options.
The same rules apply at restaurants where you pick up takeout. Choose companies that use recyclable options, bring in your own containers, and talk to the company about how this is an important issue to you.
5. Be a Conscious Traveller
Cutting out single-use plastics in your everyday routine is the most important thing. This is where most of our plastic consumption happens because it’s where most of our lives happen. But when you are travelling, you are more likely to take the most convenient route, and that route is paved with single-use plastics.
If you keep environmental concerns in mind while you are making your plans, avoiding plastic while you travel will be much easier.
Bringing a water bottle with you is one surefire way to cut out a huge landmine while travelling. You need to stay hydrated while flying or on the road and bringing a bottle with you is the easiest way to do that. There are water fountains at rest stops and airports for refilling your bottle.
Try to eat before you travel, bring snacks with you, or eat at the airport instead of eating aeroplane food. aeroplanes use a lot of plastic packaging on everything they serve.
Bring your own earbuds or headphones. Don’t use the single-use headphones they offer on planes.
Say no when you are offered a plastic straw.
Buy beverages in glass bottles instead of plastic ones.
Researching popular chain companies for fast food or coffee in your destination that have environmentally friendly options is a good idea that can take a little more time but be worth it, since you won’t want to do that kind of research once you’re there. This may sound like an impossible feat. It’s assumed that fast food companies can’t possibly get away from single-use plastic. And yet, McDonalds is eliminating all foam packaging and has promised to source all of their packaging from renewable or recycled materials by 2025. McDonalds may be a lot of things, but one of them is a popular and easy choice while traveling.
This is also a time to consider where you’ll be staying. A lot of hotels have moved toward things like encouraging guests to put up a little note if they don’t want their towels or sheets washed every day to cut down on water usage. Other hotels are moving away from single-use plastics.
The Akyra Sukhumvit Bangkok hotel was the first single-use plastic free hotel in Asia. Upon arrival to the hotel, Akyra Sukhumvit guests are given stainless steel water bottles. In the bathrooms, all of their products are in locally sourced celadon containers. The garbage bags are biodegradable. The closets have reusable shopping bags for the guests to use. These changes make it easy for guests to make plastic-free choices.
The Akyra Sukhumvit Bangkok Hotel is in the heart of a busy and bustling city, and they are re-imagining what it means to be an urban accommodation.
It always sounds like it would be too difficult for businesses to step up and make these kinds of changes, until they do. By supporting companies that make these advancements, we support the kind of world we want to live in.