It’s just a moment — the little stir stick in your coffee, the black plastic fork in your takeout box, or the straw in your soft drink — but it lasts for 500 years. That’s half a millennium of harmful impact on our environment before single-use plastic decomposes.
For what? A little convenience. And all those little moments of convenience have stacked up to equal 8.3 billion tons of plastic produced since the 1950s. The equation of single-use plastic usage and its impact on our shared planet is becoming increasingly clear to consumers all over the world.
But what can a single individual do to combat a problem that is so immense?
The answer is relatively simple, albeit not all that satisfying at first glance: reduce single-use plastic usage in your daily life.
Your effort to use less disposable plastic may feel like a drop of water in the ocean or a grain of sand on the beach, but it’s not. In fact, the Natural Resources Defense Council says cutting single-use plastic is the most effective way to reduce plastic’s negative impacts on the environment.
Single-use plastic is a problem with a solution, but getting there can be a challenge.
To help, the FiveADRIFT team has written the story of a single fictional consumer on day one of her journey to less plastic waste.
Feel like you need to see how these changes are possible? Read on.
What is Single-Use Plastic?
We should begin with the basics: what is single-use plastic? It is plastic that you use once (or only a handful of times) before you throw it away.
You can find the obvious offenders in many coffee shops and restaurants in the form of stir sticks, straws, takeout boxes, and to-go drink containers. But there are plenty of other single-use plastics hiding in plain sight: Cotton swab sticks, cigarette butts, balloons, and plastic wrapping all contain or are themselves single-use plastics.
Why Should We Reduce Single-Use Plastic?
Why does reducing single-use plastic matter at all? What’s the big deal about having billions of tons of plastic in our landfills?
As it turns out, it’s a really big deal. Just take the example of one type of single-use plastic: plastic bags. We use about 500 billion of them every year. Their average time in use is 15 minutes. And they take roughly 1,000 years to decompose. And that’s only the beginning of the problem.
Plastic bags and other single-use plastic items don’t decompose in the traditional sense. They break down with sustained exposure to UV light from the sun. They don’t separate into their constituent organic parts and re-enter the earth. They turn into microplastics.
These tiny beads of plastic absorb environmental toxins and find their way into soil and water. In the ocean, fish ingest them. That harms the fish and the people who eat them because of exposure to chemicals that disrupt the endocrine system and various other processes essential to healthy life.
Reduce Single-Use Plastic: A Day in the Life of a Responsible Consumer
Meet Jan. She’s a fictional consumer who, upon reading about the environmental and health harms of single-use plastics, decides she has to be a part of the solution. She has to reduce her use of single-use plastic. Here’s one day of Jan’s journey to zero waste.
Getting Ready for Work
Jan wakes up early for work because she has to prepare for her single-use plastic-free day. She washes her hair with a shampoo bar instead of shampoo in a single-use plastic bottle. Before she heads out the door, she packs her reusable canvas bag with the following items:
- Bamboo cutlery
- A reusable metal water bottle
- A reusable metal straw
Stopping for Coffee
On the way to work, Jan stops at a coffee shop. Instead of going through the drive-thru, she goes inside to have her coffee in a mug rather than a to-go cup. She skips the stir stick and instead opts to use her reusable metal straw to stir in the cream and sugar.
After a few hours in the office, Jan heads to lunch. Some of her co-workers were going to order delivery, but Jan decided to go to her favorite lunch spot so she wouldn’t generate any plastic waste from the delivery food containers.
At lunch, she uses her bamboo fork and knife to eat, even though plastic forks and knives are the norm at the restaurant. She also drinks from her reusable water bottle instead of a Styrofoam cup.
Heading to the Store
With the workday behind her, Jan is ready to head home. But first, she needs to stop by the store for a few things. She’s running low on some staples: rice, beans, and meat.
Instead of going to the open, refrigerated meat section of the grocery store, she goes to the butcher’s counter. There, she asks for some steaks, which the butcher wraps in butcher paper instead of the plastic tray and plastic wrap used in the refrigerated section.
With steaks in hand, Jan skips the middle aisles and heads for the bulk section. To avoid generating single-use plastic from the prepackaged bags of rice and beans, she grabs a few paper bags in the bulk aisle and gets what she needs.
It’s been a long day, and Jan is tired when she gets home from the store. She’s tempted to order takeout instead of cooking. But there’s no good way to avoid single-use plastic containers when she orders takeout, so finds the energy to put together a simple, home-cooked meal.
As the evening wraps up, Jan remembers that she needs to do some online shopping. She needs some new clothes for work, as well as a few things for an upcoming weekend beach trip.
As she shops for the clothing, she checks what each item is made of. She knows synthetic fibers in clothing contribute to the microplastics problem in a big way, so she looks for clothes made from natural fibers like cotton, wool, and hemp.
Jan also needs a new beach towel for her upcoming getaway, but she knows towels can also contain synthetic fibers. She searches for an eco-friendly, plastic-free beach towel, finds the perfect one, and checks out.
Reducing Single-Use Plastic is About Daily Choices
Your journey to zero plastic waste doesn’t have to look exactly like Jan’s, but like Jan’s fictional story, yours will be driven by the multitude of choices you make each day. From the types of bath products you use to the way you shop, you can reduce single-use plastic.
To protect our planet, we need everyone to take this journey. At FiveADRIFT, we’re constantly thinking about how to help the environment. That’s why we use sustainable, plastic-free materials for our luxurious beach towels and donate 100% of our profits to ocean conservation nonprofits. Everyone’s journey to less plastic waste is different, but that’s ours. What’s yours going to be?