Single-use plastics are items that are used only once before being thrown away or recycled, such as plastic water bottles, plastic bags, food packaging, coffee stirrers, and straws. Global production of plastic has more than tripled since 1989 to 335 million tons per year.
Fossil fuels are used to produce plastic and the manufacturing process releases carbon emissions. Since global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, cutting down on single-use plastics is a great way to reduce your carbon emissions.
Plastic takes decades to hundreds of years, in the case of the plastic bottle, to break down. And when we say ‘break down,’ we mean they turn into smaller plastic pellets called microplastics which are full of toxic chemicals which can easily enter our ecosystems and even our bodies.
Recycling is plastic is not as simple as it may sound either. There are so many kinds of plastics and different recycling facilities accept different kinds. It’s important to know what your local facility will recycle. To learn how and where to recycle specific items like lightbulbs, batteries, electronics in your area, download the iRecycle app. Also, the plastic item must be properly cleaned of food and oils in order to be recycled.
Most plastic, even when sent to a recycling facility, does not end up being recycled. About 60% of plastics sent to be recycled in California end up being recycled and the remaining 40% goes to the landfill. Usually, plastic is shipped to another country like China, which used to import two thirds of the world’s plastic until January 2018 when it ceased to do so, or it is incinerated, which adds to air pollution.
Now that China won’t take our plastic, we have a plastic recycling crisis on our hands. Americans are using single-use plastic in even larger quantities than ever before, but our existing recycling facilities don’t have the capacity to handle all of our plastic so it is going to landfills instead. Even if the plastic item you recycle does end up being recycled, it can usually only be recycled once or twice.
It’s so easy to get swept away in the convenience of frozen packaged meals or ziplock bags. But you have to decide for yourself in each instance if the benefit you have gained by taking the easier route is worth the cost to the environment. Maybe you can’t cut out all single-use plastic from your life, but maybe you can choose to cut down on the frequency of certain items or commit to avoiding a few specific ones while continuing to use others.
People all over the world are getting tired of all the plastic. Some of the biggest companies in the world, like Nestle, Proctor & Gamble, PepsiCo, and Unilever, are working with TerraCycle on a delivery system called Loop (sign up for the waitlist here for those in the US and France). Your goods – packaged in metal, glass, or engineered plastic – will be delivered to your home in a special shipping tote. When you’re done with the item, like deodorant or Tropicana orange juice, you will schedule a free pick-up and return your empty packaging in the shipping tote to be reused. This program is being launched in New York and Paris in the spring of 2019.
The best way to avoid waste is to skip using the item in the first place. In the zero waste community this is often called ‘refusing’ the plastic. We like to take a more positive approach and say ‘respectfully decline’.
For example, you can request that your food or coffee be prepared ‘for here’ instead of ‘to go’ at a restaurant or cafe. On an airplane, you can fill up your water bottle in the terminal and decline the snacks and beverages on the plane that come in plastic packaging. At the grocery store, you can choose to buy unprepared items like a whole cantaloupe at cut it yourself at home or buy loose herbs instead of those in a clamshell. If you’re shopping at you forgot to bring a reusable tote bag, we suggest carrying the items out of the store yourself instead of accepting a plastic bag. When getting ice cream, limit the number of flavors you taste and order in a cone instead a cup.
For the situations where you can’t respectfully decline an item, we recommend looking for a more sustainable or reusable alternative. For our favorite zero waste swaps, check out this post.
Disclaimer: We receive no financial compensation for any of the products recommended or shared anywhere in this blog.