The draw of the shortest straw: What are single use plastics and how to ditch your use of disposables
Green is the New Black, with single-use plastics becoming the new faux pas against going green and the eco-friendly movement. Our societal habit of using disposable plastic has become a literal addiction with Canada being the most recent country pledging to ban all single-use plastics in 2021 including all plastic bags, water bottles, cutlery, straws, coffee cup lids, cotton swabs — you name it! Single-use plastics are disposable plastics that are used only once and then tossed away or recycled — if you are still using them, we beg of you to at least recycle. The largest industrial sector is plastic packaging, with the world producing more than 400 million tons of plastics every year. Making the move away from single-use plastics is going to take more than rolling the big blue recycling cart to the curb every week.
Plastics are the failsafe of the 21st century economy with the growth in the production of plastic immensely accelerating. The largest industrial sector is plastic packaging with the world producing more than 400 million tons of plastics every year. ? Single-use plastics are made of hydrocarbons or fossil-fuel-based petrochemicals which are nonrenewable resources with the majority of consumption packaging being two types: PVC or PET. Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC can withstand extreme temperatures and has the most widespread usage due to its inexpensive price, resistance to environmental degradation, high hardness and outstanding strength. For instance, it includes everything from electronic cables and roofing materials to fake leather - think those on-trend “leather” pants you may own. Whereas polyethylene terephthalate or PET is relatively similar aside from the fact it’s more flexible, versatile and durable and includes more everyday items including packaging for foods. There’s some chemistry for you!
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has. We won't have a society if we destroy the environment.” - Margaret Mead, American Cultural Anthropologist
How do single-use plastics affect our health & the environment?
A non-biodegradable plastic — think your everyday styrofoam lunch takeout container —contains toxic chemicals such as styrene and benzene that can adversely affect the nervous, respiratory and reproductive systems and also the kidneys and liver — shocking we know. For instance, the toxins in Styrofoam containers are transferred to food and drinks and pose an even greater food safety risk when reheated.
Photo by Troy Mayne via World Wildlife Fund
Our crazed obsession with single-use plastics has detrimental effects on the environment too. Of the typical plastic product that is thrown away on average 79% ends up in landfills, 12% is incinerated and only 9% is recycled. The stark reality is that plastics including bags and styrofoam containers can take up to 1000 years to decompose! And even worse, in impoverished regions around the world, most polluting waste including plastic is openly burned for heating or cooking purposes which exposes them to the byproduct of harmful toxic gases while heaping more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
150 million tons of non-degradable plastic is floating in our oceans according to the World Economic Forum and poses a significant threat to the ingestion, choking and entanglement of endangered wildlife. At this rate there will be 1 tonne of plastic for every 3 tonne of fish by 2025 and by 2050 our oceans will literally have become a plastic pool far outnumbering fish. Enter the Save the Turtles movement we’re sure you’ve heard of. The sad reality is that sea turtles mistake plastic bags for edible jellyfish. It kills 22% of all sea turtles that ingest it with 52% of sea turtles on average consuming at least some plastic waste. Yikes! Although sea turtles are not yet extinct they have the potential to become endangered incredibly soon as a single plastic item is capable of rupturing internal organs leaving turtles being unable to eat properly, causing starvation. There are dozens of Save the Sea Turtles campaigns abound promoting coastal cleanups. And the recently released Seaspiracy on Netflix delves further into challenging our impact on sustainable fishing. Yet knowing this, why can’t we give up the seductive appeal of plastic?
Ultimately, everything in the food chain is interconnected and is easily contaminated. Ever heard of bioaccumulation? Well it’s defined as the gradual buildup of a chemical in a living organism. If that just made you think of the fish you ate for dinner last night, you’d be on the right track. Simply put, those toxic chemicals we talked about when added during the plastics manufacturing process leech into the food chain and eventually make their way from small organisms to the proteins that end up on our plates.
What can you do about it?
There isn’t one magic solution to fixing the single-use plastic problem, but there are everyday changes you can start making today that will help! It's as simple as staying informed, working reusable products into your life, repurposing plastic disposables, looking for sustainability certifications and even reading any available sustainability reports on the brand/company!
Simple swaps like getting a reusable water bottle or coffee cup in place of a single-use one will make a great contribution towards reducing your waste - and saving you money in the long-run as well! Check out our Sustainable Swaps April edition for more ideas.
- Plastic upcycling
We know you love those fun do-it-yourself (DYI) hacks on Youtube and what better way to reuse your plastic discard by repurposing it into something of use. There is so much potential too! Everything from using plastic containers for your balcony herb garden to reusing K-Cups for seed starters as tiny plant potters. Arbor fun fact: Did you know nonprofit organization Hug it Forward in Guatemala has built the inner foundation of an entire school using “eco bricks” or plastic bottles stuffed with inorganic trash? The possibilities in reusing disposable plastic are endless!
Look for legitimate certifications on labels, this is a straight-forward way to know that a company is walking the sustainable walk. These can cover a range of topics from being organic, cruelty-free and fair trade certified. Here are some certifications to check for next time you’re making a purchase: Rainforest Alliance, Guaranteed Fair Trade, Forest Stewardship Council, GOTS, B Corp, and PETA Approved Vegan.
- Sustainability reports
Sustainability reports are not a required industry standard, so when they’re published and accessible — they’re a great thing to take advantage of! They help us understand a company's approach to People, Profit, and Planet and then help us choose if supporting this brand, supports our own sustainability values. Want to check one out for yourself? Here’s the 2020 Sustainability Report from the brand Reformation.
- Stay informed
By educating yourself on what qualifies as a “single use plastic” you can avoid buying them in the first place and also explain to your family and friends the consequences of plastic waste. Better yet, sign a petition or tag your favourite brands on social media to adopt a zero-waste policy and promote environmental responsibility.
Reducing your consumption of plastic disposables won’t happen overnight and that's okay, but always keep in mind, it's well worth it for the planet we live on! It's made even easier for us with the amount of cool, convenient and eco-friendly reusable alternatives on the market today! Want to make a difference today? For every download - did we mention it's FREE - Arbor is planting a tree, so download, discover your environmental values and plant your tree today!