Single-Use Plastics 101

Written by Justin Thompson

It’s everywhere. No matter how much we try and avoid it, single-use plastic is a part of everyday life.

But what exactly is single-use plastic? Why has it become such a problem in our society? And most importantly, how can we help minimise plastic’s impact on our environment?

What are single-use plastics?

To understand where we are today, we must take a step back in time.

The first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland. Named Bakelite, it was an easily mass-produced material and was used to make iconic products like cameras, telephones, and radios.

Then in the early 20th century, companies like Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil, DuPont and BASF came together and invented polyethylene – now one of the world’s most abundant types of plastic.

Back then it was used to, amongst other things, insulate radar cabling, make Tupperware, and nylon stockings. So, while plastic was originally invented for everyday items that could be used again, it wasn’t long before it found its place as an inexpensive material for throw-away items like food packaging and plastic bottles.

This is what single-use plastic is – a material used for throwaway items. This is why it’s such an issue today, because single-use plastic is what it says on the tin – single-use – and most are made to be immediately thrown away once you’re done with them.

Why are single-use plastics a problem?

Plastic doesn’t degrade.

Plastic’s durability is one of its big selling points. For important applications like hip prostheses, bike helmets and airbags, plastic is a safe and effective material to use.

But plastic’s durability is also our biggest obstacle. Because it doesn’t break down, plastic is with us for hundreds of years, degrading into harmful microplastics that are found in the ocean and even in the human body.

Those nylon stockings made in the 1930s? Yep, they’re still with us. They’ve just been ground down into tiny microplastics.

And that’s just scratching the surface.

Single-use plastics harm the environment

Plastic is made from fossil fuels (remember the oil company super squad?) and manufacturing plastic spews out greenhouse gases.

In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic produced more than 850 million metric tonnes of greenhouse gases – that’s equivalent to 189 five-hundred-megawatt coal power plants.

And it’s estimated that by 2050, emissions from the lifecycle of plastics could be equivalent to 615 large coal-fired power stations.

That’s 10-15% of our remaining carbon budget (you know, that budget that’ll keep our planet from reaching catastrophic temperatures).

Plastic production and the climate crisis walk hand in hand. It’s critical we stop endlessly producing and consuming single-use plastics.

Single-use plastic affects animals and marine life

If you know who we are, you know we love our oceans. It’s why Modern Milkman was founded in the first place – because marine plastic pollution is out of control.

And while having plastic in and around our beaches and seas is unsightly, the ones who feel the effects of plastic ocean pollution the most are the animals that live there.

Each year, 12 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean, killing an estimated 1,000,000 sea birds, and 100,000 marine mammals and turtles.

From getting caught up in plastic to eating it, animals are having a hard time at the expense of our convenience.

And that’s just the big animals. Ever heard of plankton? And no, we’re not talking about the owner of the Chum Bucket. Phytoplankton and zooplankton are microscopic organisms found in the oceans and are a huge part of helping our planet.

These little guys help capture carbon on the earth’s surface and transport it deep into the ocean, which prevents it from re-entering our atmosphere. This is a massive job, and critical for the planet’s carbon intake.

But what’s getting in the way of this big undertaking? You guessed it. Plastic! And not just any plastic, but pesky microplastic, which is just regular plastic that’s broken down into teeny tiny pieces.

Microplastic reduces phytoplankton’s ability to fix carbon through photosynthesis. And it reduces zooplankton’s metabolic rates and reproductive success.

In other words, plastic is making it harder for plankton to do their massive carbon-saving job. Without plankton’s help, we’ll have a lot more carbon in our atmosphere, which means more climate change for us.

How much plastic is produced each year?

But how bad is it? Are we really producing this much harmful plastic?

Unfortunately, yes. And it’s only in the last few decades that things have gotten out of control.

In 1950, the world produced about 2 million tonnes of plastic. Today? 400 million tonnes. That’s approximately, 70 Great Pyramid of Gizas, or 40,000 Eiffel Towers.

And it’s only going to get worse, with a forecasted 1,100 million tonnes by 2050.

Today, 50% of all plastic produced is single use, which means half of all plastic gets tossed right after it’s used. Talk about a huge waste!

But let’s go smaller. On average, UK households throw away 66 pieces of plastic per week. That’s a total of 1.85 billion pieces per week!

But can it be recycled?

Avoiding single-use plastics is hard. From ordering takeaways to forgetting to bring our reusable water bottles out, plastic waste builds up fast. That’s okay, I can recycle it. Right?

The reality is that it’s far more complicated than that.

Of the 13 billion plastic bottles used in the UK each year, only 7.5 billion are actually recycled. That’s nearly 60% ending up in landfill or incinerated. Yeah, that’s not great.

Even when they are recycled, that only gets us so far. Each time plastic is recycled it wears down, until it can no longer be recycled and must be thrown away. Even when we do everything right – recycling is still falling short.

Should single-use plastics be banned?

The plastic waste crisis is only getting worse, and it’s estimated that by 2050, there will be more plastic than fish in our oceans.

We need action if we are to stop the plastic waste crisis. This means eliminating as much single-use plastic as we can.

But, as the Big Plastic Count report states, we need to make sure that as a society, we’re still inclusive of those who have different needs, and that any reusable alternatives are universally designed with guidance from the disabled community.

What could replace single-use plastic?

The best way to solve the plastic problem, is to stop using it. Materials like glass can be reused up to 30 times on average before needing to be recycled, and even then glass can be recycled over and over without degrading to the point where it must be thrown away. It’s why our milk round uses glass bottles – because it’s better.

Through reusables we don’t have to keep creating new objects, instead we can use what we already have. This means less waste, and less plastic, which we rely too much on already.

So, remember your cute tote bags and reusable water bottles (we all know you have ten of them in your cupboard already!) Each time you use them, the planet will thank you.

Further Reading:

How Much Plastic is in the Ocean?

What Happens to Plastic Waste?

The Lifecycle of Our Glass Milk Bottles

How to Avoid Greenwashing

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