The convenience of single-use items comes with a massive environmental cost. Unknowingly, your day is probably filled with single-use items that will eventually fill landfills and the ocean. The disposable coffee cups you grab in the morning from your local shop are made with hard-to-recycle materials such as styrofoam, polyethylene, or polypropylene. And the plastic straws? They’re just as dreadful for the environment.
We are producing over 380 tons of plastic every year, and it’s estimated that 50% of that is for single-use purposes.1 However, other materials besides plastic, such as paper, cardboard, styrofoam, and more, are just as bad. It’s time to become more aware of these materials and the single-use items we use regularly. That way, we will help to create a more circular economy for a far more sustainable future.
The Truth Behind Single-Use Plastic Items
Around 40% of single-use plastics are consumed and then discarded.2 Additionally, between 5 and 13 million tons of plastic is estimated to end up in the ocean every year. Single-use plastics need hundreds of years to break down in landfills. Disposable plastic items, such as plastic straws, coffee stirrers, food packaging, bags, and water bottles, never break down completely.3 Instead, they degrade and become microplastics. Plastic has an abundance of negative effects on the environment:
Wildlife Is Suffering
Every year, animals are killed by plastic. Approximately 700 species, even some that are endangered, have been affected by the material.4 Also, more than 100 aquatic species have been found with microplastics inside them, which can lead to pierced organs or digestive tract issues that can potentially lead to death.
Many seabirds, turtles, fish, and marine mammals are found with plastic bags or fishing gear in their stomachs. Currently, marine litter is 60% to 80% plastic, leaving these animals to constantly be ingesting toxic seawater that is full of chemicals from plastic decomposition.5
Our Oceans Are Full of Trash
The oceans are filled with trash, especially single-use plastic items. Our throw-away lifestyle is negatively affecting almost all areas of our ecosystem, especially the ocean.
Every year, 8 million tons of plastic enter the ocean, which is equivalent to one truckload dumped into the ocean every minute of the day. Currently, unless it’s burned, almost every piece of plastic that’s ever been created still exists today. When these plastics enter the ocean, their effects can be felt for centuries.6
The Pacific Trash Vortex, which is in the North Pacific Ocean, holds an exceptionally high concentration of single-use plastics that have been trapped by currents. It is estimated to be twice the size of Texas, and according to research, its contents are rapidly accumulating.
The Span of the Pacific Trash Vortex. Source: Wikipedia
Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are No Joke
When disposable plastics degrade in the environment, they emit greenhouse gasses. After the plastic is exposed to sunlight, it produces methane and ethylene. These two gasses are detrimental to the environment. It is reported that emissions from the life cycle of plastic accounts for 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.7 Once released, these gasses can be toxic and have adverse effects on the animal and plant habitat.
It is estimated that in 2050, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from plastic could grow to more than 2.75 billion tons. Additionally, this also means that plastic will be responsible for up to 13% of the total “carbon budget,” which is equivalent to 615 coal-fired power plants.8 The plastic binge we’ve been on is threatening the Paris Agreement, which is a legally binding international treaty on climate change.
Other Harmful Single-Use Materials
Single-use items aren’t always packaged in plastic. There is a multitude of other unsustainable materials that are also heavily used and just as detrimental to the environment. A few of these materials that you likely come across daily are:
- Cardboard: Think about how many boxes you receive on your doorstep step every month. It’s probably more cardboard than you think. Cardboard comes from wood pulp, which contributes to methane emissions while breaking down.9 Plus, imagine all of the trees cut down to create cardboard. Additionally, those juice, milk, soup and other liquid-filled cardboard packages we buy are lined with plastic or wax. This helps them retain the liquid without breaking down, but unfortunately renders the packages unrecyclable.
- Paper: A paper bag takes 4 times the amount of energy to produce than a plastic one. Also, the energy required for paper is significantly greater than that needed to recycle the same weight of plastic.
- Styrofoam: Styrofoam is a trademarked brand name that has come to refer to the material made from expanded polystyrene foam (EPS) or plastic foam. Styrofoam doesn’t break down properly, as it takes around 500 years to decompose.10
- Aluminum Foil: Many food products and face masks are packaged using aluminum foil. Clean aluminum foil can be recycled, however much of the foil packaging that is used for personal care tubes, wipes, sheet masks, frozen foods, snacks, and coffee is multilayered with plastic fused to the aluminum. Some packaging is made of up to seven layers of plastic and foil. Currently, there is no machinery to separate these layers, so it becomes completely unrecyclable.
- Glass: While glass includes some natural materials, it also requires sand. Unfortunately, we are running out of sand around the world. When these elements are removed from wildlife habitats, ecosystems can be disrupted. Glass production also releases carbon into the atmosphere.11
Source: Financial Times
What Are The Most Offending Single-Use Items?
Avoiding extra waste is key to reversing the environmental crisis we are currently facing. It is hard to avoid single-use items these days; however, many companies are creating innovative alternatives. By becoming aware of the negative impacts of single-use packaging and how commonly we succumb to them, the change can begin.
Here are a few of the worst offending single-use items and their alternatives:
Plastic Water Bottles
Did you know that around 25% of bottled water is actually just tap water?12 80% of plastic water bottles end up in landfills. And for each bottle, it takes 1,000 years to fully break down. As they decompose, they leak harmful chemicals into the atmosphere.
Alternatives: Opt for a reusable water bottle and invest in a tap filter at home or a filtering jug. Check out this reusable water bottle that is made out of 50% recycled material!
Paper Coffee Cups
Each paper cup, taking into account the paper, the sleeve, the production, and shipping, emits around 0.11 kilograms of CO2.13 Additionally, paper cup production results in ecosystem degradation, a reduction of the planet’s carbon absorption capacity, and the loss of trees. 4 billion gallons of water are wasted every year to produce single-use cups and enough energy to power 54,000 homes.14
Alternatives: Bring your own reusable travel mug to your favorite coffee shop in the mornings. Here’s one that is insulated and has a handle so the barista can pour your drink of choice with ease.
It is estimated that in the United States alone, 40 billion plastic utensils are wasted every year. Plastic utensils, even when put in the recycling bin, don’t often get recycled because of food contamination and incompatibility with sorting equipment due to their small size and light weight.15
The #CutOutCutlery campaign is asking many businesses, such as Grubhub, Postmates, and UberEats, to include an option on apps for customers to decide if they want utensils included with their delivery. This would make opting out of disposable utensils the default choice.
Alternatives: There are lots of biodegradable utensils available, such as this set that’s made out of 100% untreated bamboo that’s cultivated without pesticides and fertilizers. The utensils are also BPA-free and recyclable.
Around 20 billion tampons and pads are dumped into the landfill every year. Conventional pads contain the equivalent of about four plastic bags! Additionally, the polyethylene plastic in pads can take hundreds of years to decompose.16
You’ve probably seen the viral video of the sea turtle that had a plastic straw stuck in its nose. It was horrible to see, but it probably made you rethink using plastic straws. As it is, 500 million straws are used daily in the United States.17 Due to the chemicals that most straws are made of, they can’t be recycled. Additionally, the majority of plastic straws are not biodegradable and cannot be broken down naturally by bacteria and other decomposers into non-toxic materials.
Alternatives: FinalStraw created an innovative alternative to plastic straws by making a reusable silicone and stainless steel hybrid straw. It also collapses to make keeping it on hand easier.
Tips to Avoid Single-Use Items
Making simple swaps, like purchasing a reusable water bottle, coffee container, or straw, can spare the environment tons of unsustainable waste each year. Here are a few tips for ridding your life of single-use items for good:
- Always have reusable bags on hand, especially for grocery shopping.
- Cook at home more often to avoid plastic take-out containers.
- Buy in bulk to keep away from individually packaged items.
- Walk, bike, or take public transportation to buy items and avoid unnecessary packaging used during shipping.
- Ask for non-plastic alternatives at restaurants.
- Avoid plastic wrap by using reusable containers to keep your food fresh.
- Speak out and let companies know that you care about packaging!
We’ve Signed the #StopSingleUse Petition
The Human Beauty Movement and Humanist Beauty have had the last straw. We’ve signed the #StopSingleUse petition and pledged to not sell or distribute any items that are used once and thrown away, such as sheet masks, pads, wipes, sample packets, and other single-use products. We are very aware of how single-use items negatively impact the environment and are actively striving for a cleaner, more sustainable planet.