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Single-Use Plastics: What Are They and Why They Need to be Banned?

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“It’s only one straw,” said 8 billion people. – Unknown

These days, plastic is almost everywhere. Your coffee cup, plates, and drinking straws are made from it.  Medicines and health drinks are packaged in it. Your car, computer, and cell phone from which you are reading this article are encased in it. In fact, it is truly undeniable that the whole world revolves around the use of plastic.

Now how can it be a problem?

Simple. There is too much plastic out there. 

World Bank Studies have found that in 2016, the world has generated a massive amount of 242 million tonnes of plastic waste from East Asia, Pacific, Europe, Central Asia, and North America.

And single-use plastic comes first in this category. 

What are single-use plastics?

Just as the name suggests, single-use plastics are the plastic products that are designed for just one-time use. These products will be either thrown off or recycled after use. These items include disposable plates, straws, food packets, carrier bags, water bottles, cutlery, etc.

It is very interesting to know that although the term single-use plastics has been around for quite some time, by November 2018, Collins Dictionary officially announced it as the word of the year.

Many of the single-use plastic items can be recycled with ease, but it is quite unfortunate that almost 80 percent of these items either end up in a landfill or at the bottom of the ocean.

 

What are single-use plastics made of?

Single-use plastics are usually composed of various elements such as hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen, and chlorine. Plastics are mainly made out of organic materials such as coal, crude oil, natural gas, petroleum, cellulose, salt, and coal. Most single used plastics are made out of crude oil.

The crude oil is naturally distilled in the refinery and is separated into a group of lighter compounds called fractions. Every year 1.5 million barrels of oil are used to make single-use plastic items. Along with this several tons of oil is burned in transporting them.

Sometimes single-use plastics are also made out of naturally occurring compounds such as wood, resin, and horn.

Polymerization is the chemical technique to make single-use plastics. Here several monomers interlink to form a polymer.

  • Addition polymerization– here the monomers add on to each other in the presence of a catalyst. Monomers such as propene and ethene are used.
  • Condensation Polymerisation-here two different monomers join alternately with a by-product such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, or water.

How long does it take for single-use plastics to degrade?

Since most plastics are made out of petroleum-based products, they do not decompose so easily. 

Why?

This is because polyethylene which is the most common material used to make single-use plastics is not easily broken down by microorganisms in nature. 

Single-use plastics decompose as a result of exposure to sunlight-a process which is known as photodegradation. 

Researchers estimate that it can take up to 500-1000 years for the plastic to decompose in a landfill.

A single-use plastic bag can take 20 years to degrade while a plastic bottle can take up to 500 years. The only exception is biodegradable plastic bags, which is hardly a solution.

What is the environmental impact of single-use plastics?

It’s pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it and bring it home, is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you’re done with it. – Unknown

Plastic pollution is undoubtedly the worst kind of pollution the planet has witnessed. 

Being light in weight, single use plastics are usually carried away by the wind and often get stuck in fences, posts, or other structures.

When an animal comes in contact with this, there is a high chance of them consuming it. This can clog the stomach causing permanent damage to the digestive system and eventually killing them slowly and miserably.

Studies have shown that almost 200 species of animals are known to ingest plastic.

Plastic waste often gets washed away in the rain and gets drained into rivers and streams. Hundreds of rivers are known to carry several thousand tons of plastic waste, which will eventually get dumped in the ocean.

Sea animals bear the biggest burden of plastic intruding into their habitat. It has a high impact on coral reefs, fish, whales, and an almost infinite number of sea animals.

Plastic waste has been found in the gut of whales, sea animals, turtles, and fishes.

If the rate of dumping continues at this extent, by around 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than the total number of fish.

Plastic production is one of the major reasons for greenhouse gas emission resulting in global warming. Global warming has resulted in the melting of icebergs submerging the low-lying areas destroying the habitats of several species of plants and animals.

Some pollution statistics as a result of single-use plastics

Environmentalists have found that about 269,000 tons of plastic waste float on the surface of the ocean. This is among the 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in the ocean.

Statistics have revealed that 500 billion single-use plastic bags are sold every year, roughly translated to about 150 bags for every person on this plant for a year.

And no, that’s not the end. The numbers are still rising.

  • Floods which appeared in Bangladesh in 1988 & 1998 were disastrous since the plastic bags have clogged drains to let the water runoff.
  • The Irish government has introduced a 15c plastic bag tax and has amazingly cut down it’s usage by about 90% in one year.
  • An approximate number of 1 million sea birds die due to plastic annually
  • One hundred thousand marine creatures die due to plastic waste getting clogged in their digestive tract. And this is the data for just one year!
  • Plastic waste is the most predominant man-made material seen in the ocean by mariners.
  • Every day, about 15,000 pieces of plastic waste are dumped into the ocean.
  • Roughly 50,000 pieces of plastic waste are present in every square mile of the ocean.
  • Every year 6.4 million tonnes of plastic are dumped into the ocean. This is about 3,200-kilometre length of garbage trucks dumping piles of plastic filth right into the sea.
  • It can take up to 1000 years for the plastic to break down, and the end product is not useful. It will be nothing but toxic chemicals and polymers.
  • By 2050 plastic waste will cause a 13% hike in the carbon footprint-equivalent to emission from 615 power plants powered by coal.
  • 99% of all plastics are still made out of synthetic non-biodegradable materials.

Should we ban Single-Use Plastics?

Yes, absolutely.

People are so habituated to use single-use plastics due to its mammoth scale production and our throwaway culture.

What can bans accomplish? 

Changing people’s mindset is the foremost and toughest goal. Once this is accomplished, we can prevent several billion tons of plastic waste from being dumped into the ocean and rivers. 

The last decade has witnessed a huge wave of plastic ban sweeping across global nations. 

Several US cities are putting a tight ban on single-use plastic items such as straws, cups, plates, and bags. California has passed a law banning plastic waste in 2014. This has cut down the use of single-use plastic bags by 85 % and minimized coastal pollution.

Banning plastic bags not only reduces pollution but also brings down the global demand for plastic production. This, in turn, will help to minimize the carbon footprint in nature. 

Companies are forced to innovate and shift to a much greener alternative than plastics.

Green volunteers who work on the coastline to clean up the shores have observed tons of plastic waste belonging to giant companies. An audit conducted along the coast line helped to identify the source of pollution. 

Workers who have painstakingly cleaned several thousand tons of individual pieces tirelessly have discovered that a lion’s share of plastic waste belongs to giant corporations such as Nestlé, PepsiCo & Coca-Cola.

As per the official reports, Coca-Cola alone produces three million tons of plastic packaging annually. This is equivalent to about 120,00,000 plastic bottles in an hour. 

The land of Taiwan, which was once notoriously known as “Garbage Island,” now has a recycling rate of 55%, which is one of the highest in the world, when compared to the US and that of the European Union, which is 34.7% and 46% respectively.

The Taiwanese government has started the garbage clean up by offering financial incentives to the residents to produce less waste.

In 2001, another regulation was introduced, known as Pay as You Throw. This requires the residents to pay a fee depending on the amount of garbage collected. 

The success of Taiwan’s transformation was accepted around the globe with warm applause. This proved that if we work together, even the worst amount of pollution can be cleaned up.

Some companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks & Disney are taking an initiative of their own. McDonald’s has replaced its plastic straws with paper ones in its Ireland and UK branches. Disney, on the other hand, is eliminating single-use plastic straws and plates in all their resorts, theme parks, and properties.

Starbucks, just like McDonald’s, has introduced paper straws and plates.

Can we recycle single-use plastics, and is it efficient?

Plastics can be made from bio-based or fossil-based materials. Both these raw materials are good in making plastics that are non-biodegradable or biodegradable.

Only non-biodegradable plastics can be recycled, whether it is made from fossil-based or bio-based. You might have noticed symbols on your plastic packaging explaining about the type of plastics they are made of. 

In certain cases, single-use plastic items are created out of materials, which are a combo of recyclables and non-recyclables. It would be a painstaking process to manually separate out those materials and send them for recycling.

Alternatives to single-use plastic

By now, most of you probably understand the dangers of single-use plastic. It is better to use the items which are made out of natural or eco-friendly materials. You might have noticed that most of the daily use items made out of single-use plastic do have an eco-friendly alternative

Here are some of the cool replacements to single-use plastic:

  1. Carry your own reusable shopping bags: Shopping bags made out of reusable organic materials such as leather, bamboo, canvas, and paper are great alternatives to single-use plastic bags. 

As to date, big brands and grocery store owners have already made the transition to bags made out of jute, cloth, or biodegradable plastics.

Jute bags, even though bulky, are less harmful to the environment in all the stages of production, use, and disposal.

  1. Water bottles made of organic compounds– A single-use plastic bottle might seem quite innocent at first, but have you imagined the amount of bottles which are thrown off recklessly by millions of people on a day to day basis.

However, the solution is quite simple. 

Use a reusable plastic bottle, so that you don’t have to buy one each time you go out. Choosing a bottle made out of steel, aluminum, or glass could be a wonderful and greener replacement.

  1. Compostable plates and straws– Do you know that on an average, 500 million straws and plates are thrown out after use every year. Compostable plates and straws made out of eco-friendly materials would be a great replacement to single-use plastic straws and plates.
  2. Food items wrapped in paper bags- You might have noticed that food items such as bread come in multi-layered plastic wraps. These are most likely to end up in a landfill. The best solution to this problem is to buy loose bread and get it wrapped in a paper carrier. Preserve the bread in an airtight container once you are back home.

Also read our article on “30 tips to lead a plastic free life”.

Examples from major brands that switched to greener options

Unilever

When it comes to resorting to greener options, Unilever has done a lot. The company has resorted to using eco-friendly and greener options in production, sourcing, and supply chain. The waste as a result of its industrial operations is mostly non-hazardous and does not go to any landfills.

IKEA

For IKEA “sustainability” is the slogan in almost all its business operations. This company is quite well known for its furniture & kitchen accessories. Most of the wood used in manufacturing comes from sustainable foresters. 

The cotton used by IKEA comes from cotton farms, which have a better standard of cultivation while minimizing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. The company has invested in a large number of solar panels that are used to power it’s stores.

By 2020 the goal of IKEA is to be powered totally by renewables.

Dell

Dell is quite a well-known brand for producing computer equipment. They have implemented many methods and programs for reducing environmental footprint. Dell has come up with a unique, effective, safe disposal program for the disposal of products. 

Dell encourages its customers to give them back any Dell-related waste products, and they would dispose of them for free in a safe and efficient manner. The company even accepts other brand products for safe disposal.

Tesla Motors

Tesla Motors have been in business for quite some time now. However, what makes them unique is their manufacture of eco-friendly cars without any compromise in the quality or power it can deliver. 

The common electric-powered cars manufactured by Tesla give a power output of 256MPG from its electric engine and can jump from 0 to 60 Mph within a matter of 3.9 seconds. The cars are known to last quite long, with very few maintenance costs.

How to eliminate single-use plastics from daily living

Most people dump the plastic waste in a trash can imagining that it would be recycled and turned into something new. But unfortunately, the hard truth is that these eventually end up in a landfill or at the bottom of the ocean.

The plastic straw which you just dropped might take another 500 years before degrading completely. The following are some popular options to consider when planning a plastic free life

Use recyclable or reusable shopping bags

Plastic bags keep on doing their proper part in global warming. Single-use plastic bags can take up to 500 years in order to completely break down, and almost less than one percent is recycled.

©indiamart.com

Using biodegradable plastic bags or bags made out of organic compounds can be the best option to eliminate plastic use from your day to day life. Bags made out of jute, bamboo, cloth, or paper won’t take much longer to gel with earth once these are thrown away.

Go for natural clothing fiber

When it comes to clothes, always opt for items that are made out of pure natural fiber such as cotton or jute. Once synthetic clothes are thrown off after use, they pollute the environment.

Stop using bottled water

Get a reusable stainless steel water bottle. Make sure to fill it with water before you go out. This is a hundred times better than using bottled water made of reusable plastic.

Creating your own plastic alternatives

Sometimes it is quite hard to find an eco-friendly replacement for the single-use plastic product that you might be using. Now, this is a challenging part, but this will be a wonderful opportunity for you to create your own eco-friendly alternatives. Be an example to the world around you.

Read more in our article on “Top 10 Eco friendly products for everyday use

Final thoughts

Although several ingenious methods have been derived to curb down the plastic pollution, the most effective step is to not create plastic waste in the first place. 

If you are planning to reduce the amount of single-use plastic items in your home, the first step will be to take out your kitchen inventory and see what all products you have on your list. 

Ask yourself the magic question. Do I really need this? And think carefully. 

By this time, you might have a glimpse of what all plastic items you can simply avoid. Make sure you ask yourself this question daily. 

Try the best you can. You can still enjoy your tasty cup of chocolate milk and be guilt-free. All it takes is a small adjustment.

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