The bags that we use to carry our takeout, the straws that we use to drink our iced coffee, and the wrapper around the candy we eat is in our life for such a short time that we do not even register their existence. These conveniences are used for mere minutes and quickly thrown out. While convenient, unfortunately, they also come with an environmental price we will have to pay for many years to come. But what are single-use plastics?
To explain it shortly, single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel-based chemicals and are meant to be disposed of right after use. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and service ware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.
Though plastic, a chain of synthetic polymers essentially was invented in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that it got so popular. Manufacturers began replacing traditionally paper or glass staples with lighter or more durable and affordable plastic alternatives; plastic jugs replaced milk jars. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been produced, and half of that in the past 15 years alone.
There are many uses for plastic that are not only reasonable but important, such as surgical gloves, or straws for people with disabilities. But these cases make up a small part of single-use plastic. According to a study, more than half of non-fiber plastic, which excludes synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, comes from plastic packaging alone, much of which is for single-use items.
Single-use plastics are an example of the problems with overconsumption. Instead of investing in quality goods that will last, we often prioritize convenience over durability and consideration of long-term impacts. We produce 300 million tons of plastic each year worldwide, half of which is for single-use items.
Reducing plastic use is the most effective means of avoiding this waste and the impacts linked to plastic use. Carrying reusable bags and bottles is one great way to avoid single-use plastics in our day-to-day lives. Recycling more plastic, more frequently, reduces its footprint. Polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most commonly recycled plastics and the material that makes up most water and soda bottles, can be turned into everything from polyester fabric to automotive parts.
Although single-use plastic pollution accumulates most visibly on our streets, our water suffers even more. Litter can be the first stage in a waste stream that enters waterways as plastics tossed on the street are washed away by rain into rivers and streams.
Our addiction to plastic also has negative impacts on the climate. A recent report showed that plastic production contributes to planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions at every point in its life cycle. The process of drilling for plastic’s source materials, oil and gas, leads to methane leaking and flaring and is often combined with clearing forests and wetlands.
Plastic pollution whether in our oceans, piling up on our coastlines, or contributing to our climate crisis, impacts and will continue to impact our life until we try to put an end to it. While one person cannot save the world alone, a personal effort done by many people can also create a huge impact.