Single-Use Plastics Are Killing Our Planet:
What It Means Today, What It Will Mean For The Future, & What You Can Do To Stop It:
The Problem With Single-Use Plastics
We have a plastic problem. Of the 2.12 billion tons of waste humans create each year, more than 275 million tons are plastic [1, 2]. What’s more, more than one-third of plastic products are intentionally single-use, and only about 10% of today’s purchases will still be in use in 6 months [3, 1].
The human and environmental impacts of that kind of scale are incredible. 100% of people eat, drink, and breathe microplastics and toxic byproducts of plastic degradation . More than 700 species of marine life are threatened by plastic trash in their environment . In developing countries, where systemic waste-management is poor or non-existent, one person dies every 30 seconds from diseases caused by living near plastic waste pollution .
Single-use plastics make up more than half of the world’s landfill matter and account for more than half of incinerated trash (yielding half of the carbon emissions from each) . Common single-use food and beverage containers are often un-recyclable (including straws, polystyrene place settings, and insulated paper cups, plates, and bowls) [8, 9]. Moreover,79% of landfill matter ends up back in the environment as litter and 32% of single-use plastics never even make it to a landfill [10, 11]. Of the 245,000 tons of floating plastic trash in the oceans, the majority is single-use food and beverage packaging, straws, and cutlery [12, 13].
What would happen if we continue this way?
If our plastic use- and waste-habits continues unchecked, by 2025 we will dump enough trash into the ocean annually to fill ten garbage bags per square foot of coastline . By 2050 our plastic waste creation rates will quadruple , and we can further expect:
- Plastic production will account for 20% of global oil consumption and 15% of our carbon emissions (vs. 6% and 1% currently, respectively) .
- Twelve billion metric tons of plastic waste will have accumulated on land (in landfills or the environment) .
- We will have incinerated more than 13.2 billion tons of plastic trash (yielding more than 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide; 1000 times more than currently comes from burning plastic wastes each year) [7, 18].
- There will be more plastic waste in the ocean than fish (at least 937 million tons of plastic to 895 million tons of fish) [16, 19].
- 99% of seabirds will have ingested some plastic waste .
- Large amounts of plastic waste floating in the ocean and accumulating on shorelines will critically damage shipping, commercial fishing, and the tourism industry in developing countries (plastic pollution already causes $13 billion in losses to those industries per year) .
What Can We Do To Change?
The most effective way to reduce single-use plastic waste is to quit using single-use plastics.
Using recyclable and eco-friendly plastics can help. However, processing “biodegradable” or “compostable” plastics requires specialised facilities that are unavailable in most areas . Yet recycling plastics, ultimately, does not keep them out of the oceans or landfills; it just delays their arrival there . What’s more, that delay isn’t even guaranteed. Recent changes in trade policy mean that as of mid-2019, only 56% of the plastic consumers set aside for recycling are actually processed for recycling .
The best option for individual consumers is to choose long-term use products or non-plastic single-use products. This can be challenging; few of the most significant corporate contributors to global plastic pollution have taken substantial steps towards making their products either multi-use or non-plastic .
The most powerful tools you have against the plastic problem, then, are your purchasing decisions. Choose to make small lifestyle changes, like reusing containers instead of purchasing new ones, or purchasing multi-use, non-plastic goods. This includes coconut (and other plant-based) dinnerware, sustainably sourced wood utensils, and bamboo-fiber straws. You can also purchase bamboo-based toothbrushes, bottle-free shampoo bars, and cardboard-packaged goods. You'll not only make your contribution to the single-use plastic problem smaller, but you’ll also tell businesses that you’re unwilling to buy into the problem. If enough consumers send that message, companies will have to change so that fewer single-use plastics (and more environmentally friendly alternatives) are on the market.