Good things come in reusable packages: how to stop our single-use abuse
Single-use plastics are all the plastic products and packaging that we dispose of after one use. We tend to use these items for only minutes, yet their impact on our environment can last way longer than our own existence.
According to the WWF’s global plastic report, Solving Plastic Through Accountability, released in March this year, every one of us uses on average 53 kilograms of plastic every year. By 2030 this number is expected to double.
The World Economy Forum estimated that 78 million tonnes of plastic packaging is produced annually by an industry expected to reach nearly US$270 billion by 2025.
What is the issue with single-use plastics?
Plastic pollutes our oceans, freshwater sources and the environment. It represents a severe threat to wildlife, with animals getting their heads stuck in or ingesting plastic bags, choking or damaging their airways by eating bits of plastics like water bottle lids.
Plastic pollution also undermines human health because tiny beads of plastic are found in the food we eat and the water we drink.
But this is not all. The single-use plastic problem is not only a waste problem.
Even when these items are recyclable, and many of them are not, making single-use plastic items has a significant impact on the environment. It takes a considerable amount of energy and valuable resources to make plastic items that will be used for a very short time and then trashed.
The plastic pollution cycle starts with oil extraction. Extracting oil harms the environment, contaminates groundwater and exposes local wildlife and humans to toxic chemicals. After extraction, refining oil and manufacturing plastic produces toxic byproducts that can damage waterways and the surrounding environment.
The carbon emission from plastic production and plastic incineration after use was 1% of the total in 2014 but will reach 15% by 2050, according to the World Economy Forum report.
Then, there is the waste problem. To date, we recycle only a fraction of the enormous amount of single-use plastic produced. The vast majority ends up in landfill or leaks into the environment.
Recycling is great, of course, but it’s not the solution. Recycling does not make up for the amount of energy and resources spent to make the items the first time nor the recycled items. It is far better not to produce these items and generate waste in the first place.
The solution to the single-use plastic problem is to get rid of it altogether.
South Australia was the first state to ban single-use plastic bags in 2011. It will also be the first state to ban plastic straws, cutlery and drink stirrers next year. The state is considering a ban on takeaway polystyrene containers and cups, coffee cups and reusable plastic bags.
In the rest of the country, some supermarkets and businesses have done away with single-use shopping bags and other items, but Australia, like the rest of the world, is still far from getting rid of single-use plastic.
Refuse things you don’t really need. You can say no to freebies and advertising gadgets if you know you are not going to use them and they will eventually end up in the bin.
Ask for no single-use straws when you go out for drinks and remember to carry your own reusable coffee cup if you fancy a coffee on the way to work. Pack your own lunch to avoid take-away food and make sure your refillable water bottle is in your bag before leaving home.
Keep a fabric shopping bag on you and in the car all the time you in case you want to get some groceries on the way home. Whenever possible, choose to buy loose produce which you can store in reusable plastic or glass containers and think twice before buying products with multiple layers of unnecessary packaging.
Before purchasing, ask yourself: ‘Do I really need this? How often or for how long will I use it? Is all the packaging necessary?’ Online shopping is a major culprit for unnecessary single-use packaging.
Reducing the amount of single-use plastic items we buy cuts down the amount of waste we need to deal with. It also reduces the number of items produced and, in turn, the energy and resources used to make those products.
As consumers, we have the power to influence what businesses do by choosing what and how much we buy. A future without single-use plastics is possible, and it is in our own hands.
Dr Manuela Callari is a freelance science and medical writer based in Sydney. She is passionate about health and medicine, environment protection and climate crisis, science and technology. She advocates for gender equality and women’s empowerment in STEM.