Disposable water bottles, plastic shopping bags, and straws are just a few examples of single-use plastics wreaking havoc on our ecosystems. While it may seem like these products make our lives more convenient in the short term, the immense toll they take on the environment ultimately puts us all in danger.
To put it simply: people use too much plastic. Single-use plastics end up in unwelcome places, including our rivers, streams, and oceans. Read on to learn the ins and outs of single-use plastics, how laws are changing to protect our environment and what you can do to help.
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Examples of Single-Use Plastic
Primarily made from petrochemicals (fossil fuel-based chemicals), single-use plastics are one of the most ubiquitous and pernicious forms of pollution today. As the term suggests, single-use plastics are made to be used once, then thrown away. Often a matter of convenience, these plastics may be tossed within minutes — if not seconds — of their intended use. Once thrown out, single-use plastics often don’t break down, but simply break up into smaller pieces known as microplastics.
Let’s look at a few examples of the most common single-use plastics troubling our planet today:- Straws
- Plastic shopping bags
- Packaging materials
- Plastic coffee cup lids
- Plastic beverage bottles
- Plastic bottle caps
- Foam take-away containers
- Cigarette butts
- Plastic cutlery
- Six-pack rings
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it’s easy to see how a simple trip to the grocery store can leave you with an immense amount of single-use plastics on your hands. Of course, it’s important to note that plastic can have important uses, like in the medical industry, where it’s used for gloves, medical implants, and devices that help those living with disabilities. However, these cases make up a small fraction of single-use plastic consumption. A 2017 study on plastic found that more than half of non-fiber plastics come from packaging materials alone.
The Effects of Single-Use Plastic
Here’s a scenario you may have faced at some point: you’re out running errands, so you stop and grab coffee. Your latte comes in a styrofoam cup with a plastic lid. You think to yourself, life is bitter enough, so you add some sweetener and use a disposable stirrer to mix it all in. You’re also feeling peckish, so you grab a granola bar and hit the road.
Ten minutes later, you’re adequately caffeinated and you’ve had your snack. You recycle what you can, because you like to do your part. The granola wrapper goes in the trash. You never think about these items again.
We now know that a staggering 91% of plastic never gets recycled, ending up in landfills or the environment instead. If you were to routinely do the coffee-granola bar scenario, here’s the damage:
- A Styrofoam Cup — Styrofoam (also known as polystyrene) is a non-biodegradable material containing Styrene (a synthetic chemical that can leach into food and drinks). When Styrofoam is exposed to sunlight, it can release harmful pollutants into landfills and into the atmosphere, where it may contribute to ozone depletion. That Styrofoam cup you drank out of for 10 minutes could take more than a million years to decompose in a landfill.- A Plastic Coffee Cup Lid — Disposable coffee cup lids are often made of polypropylene or polystyrene #6, making it difficult to recycle them. As a result, your coffee cup and lid may end up in a landfill or in the environment. Tragically, single-use plastics are often ingested by marine life or can cause injury and poisoning to wildlife.
- A Plastic Stirrer — Roughly 7.5 percent of the plastic in our environment comes from plastics straws and stirrers — items of convenience we often don’t need or only use for a few seconds. Marine animals, like sea turtles and seabirds, mistake single-use plastics like straws and stirrers for food to devastating effect. To put the marine plastic problem in perspective, a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum projects the amount of plastic in our oceans will outweigh the fish by 2050.
We produce more than 300 million tons of plastic every year across the globe. Around half is used for single-use plastic items.
Which States Have Banned Single-Use Plastics?
In some ways, we have plastic bags to thank for legislation around single-use plastics. The data is staggering: globally, people use 5 trillion plastic bags every year. That works out to roughly 700 plastic bags for each person on the planet on an annual basis. Plastic bags are often made from Polyethylene, which takes hundreds of years to degrade. With an estimated 300 million plastic bags ending up in the Atlantic Ocean every year — and less than 1% of all plastic bags getting recycled globally — no one denies that it’s time for a change. Many states are tackling the single-use plastic bag problem first.
Here’s where statewide laws stand today:- California — Approved in November, 2016, Proposition 67 introduced a statewide single-use plastic carryout bag ban. On Oct. 5, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom approved Senate Bill No. 343, enacting restrictions on the use of the recycling symbol on products, as well as Assembly Bill No. 1276, regulating the distribution and use of single-use plastic products.
Preemptive single-use plastic bag bans are set to go into effect in 18 other states, while Virginia has a Disposable Plastic Bag Tax, and the District of Columbia has a bag fee for disposable paper and plastic bags.
Pending Legislation: Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021
On March 25, 2021, the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 was introduced in the Senate. The federal bill outlines plans to reduce the production and use of single-use plastics and to increase recycling efficiency, setting forth the following requirements:- Producers of certain single-use plastic products, including packaging, paper, beverage containers, and food service products, will be financially responsible for managing the collection, recycling or composting of products after consumer use.
- Starting on Jan. 21, 2023, the bill phases out single-use plastics, such as plastic utensils.
- Provisions to discourage the production and use of single-use plastics include programs to refund customers for returning beverage containers and enacting a tax on carryout bags.
- The export of plastic waste to other countries will be limited.
- The EPA must ensure certain clothes washers have filtration units to help reduce environmental harm from plastic micro-fiber “shedding.”
- The EPA must establish and publish guidelines for a standardized national labeling system for recycling and composting receptacles.
The Senate read the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2021 Act twice, and the bill was last referred to the Committee on Finance. If signed into federal law, the bill aims to “prevent pollution from consumer products and packaging from entering into animal and human food chains and waterways.”
Single-Use Plastic Alternatives
As more businesses and consumers grow concerned about the fate of our planet, eco-friendly alternatives to single-use plastics are becoming more common. Here are the top five single-use plastic alternatives:
- Stainless Steel — Products made from this highly durable, recyclable metal can replace single-use cups, water bottles, and food storage containers.
- Glass — Glass jars, water bottles and food storage containers are great plastic alternatives. While glass isn’t biodegradable, it is chemically inert and easy to recycle.
- Bamboo — Highly renewable, durable, and compostable, bamboo can replace plastic straws, kitchen utensils and cutting boards.
- Beeswax-Coated Cloth — Beeswax-coated fabric can replace plastic wrap and plastic bags for food storage and is easy to clean.
- Natural Fiber Cloth — Organic cotton, wool, hemp, and linen are excellent alternatives to synthetic fabrics containing plastic. These natural materials won’t shed plastic fibers when washed and can be sourced sustainably.
Swapping single-use plastics for more sustainable alternatives keeps immense amounts of plastic out of our environment.
Join FiveADRIFT and Help Save Our Oceans
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Our team is committed to a journey toward being waste-free, carbon-negative and single-use plastic-free. We’re proud to donate 100% of our profits to organizations working to remove plastic from our oceans. Ready to help create a sustainable future? Shop plastic-free towels from FiveADRIFT today, or contact our team with any questions about our products.