What is Single-Use Plastic?
A Miracle or a Curse: What is Single-Use Plastic
In just 4 to 5 decades of coming into existence, plastic has become one of the most essential commodities that the civilised societies around the world, now depend upon. So much so, that the scale of plastic production, which has been rapidly increasing, has already touched a massive 300+ million metric tons every year. Close to 50% of this number, is the amount of ‘single-use’ plastic that floods the world every year. Plastic, for its production, requires fossil fuel. This precious and limited natural resource, which takes millions of years to form, gets transformed into single-use plastic and gets discarded just a few minutes after its ‘one-time’ usage. Let’s take a closer look at what this single-use item, that we just can’t seem to do without, really is!
So… What Exactly Is Single-Use Plastic?
In the name of convenience, and of course low production cost, half of the total plastic manufactured is of such low quality that they tend to be used just once, before being discarded. All such plastic, fall under the ‘single-use plastic’ category. As the single-use plastic is meant to assist with everyday activities, these inorganic, man-made material have become an intricate part of most people’s lifestyle. We wear it, work with it, eat and drink from it. In fact, it is harder to list scenarios free of single-use plastic!
Just the top of the list includes common day-to-day items like single-use plastic shopping bags, water bottles, plastic food packaging, disposable coffee cups, straws, toothbrush… The list just goes on. Most of these single-use items, not only do they end up littering the environment but in a lot of cases, end up littering our own homes too. Over time, without our realising it perhaps, single-use plastic has become a severe addiction, of the human race, to convenience.
1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute. 500 million straws are given out, every day. And an estimated 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually, with just 1% of the plastic bags making it to the recycling plant.
Agreeably, recycling is a much more effective solution to all the plastic trash generated, than merely letting them squat for centuries on a landfill. However, the reality of the recycling industry is another tale altogether. Apart from the fact that recycling tends to incur a considerable cost, much more than the value derived from the recycled products, there are many other complications, that disqualifies recycling as a long-term solution. Here’s an article to give you more insight into the truth of the recycling industry: Plastic Recycling Facts
So We Need A Lot Of Single-Use Plastic, What’s The Big Deal?
Quite a lot, actually! For one, the flimsy single-use plastic is so lightweight, that once discarded in the environment, it gets dispersed for up to hundreds of miles away. And given the massive scale at which they are manufactured and also dumped, makes such spreading of pollutants, environmentally hazardous.
This miracle invention is responsible for much of the convenience of our modern-day lifestyle. However, a big chunk of this massively produced material is discarded after a single use, and end up polluting our water, soil and air.
Since a lot of crude oil is burnt to make plastic, as well as in its transportation, just the whole process of producing and then distributing the plastic, becomes a significant source of pollution. And then comes the monster pile of pollutant, all the discarded plastic. Here are some numbers, that can help give you a better perspective of the actual scale of the problem. Note that, of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced till date, 6.3 billion metric tons have become garbage!
Amount of common single-use items produced globally every year:
TAKEAWAY PACKAGING – 2.5 billion
COFFEE CUPS – 16 billion
DRINKING STRAWS – 36.4 billion
BEVERAGE BOTTLES – 46 billion
CIGARETTE BUTTS – 580 billion
Greedily Eating Up Our Essential Natural Resources
Plastic requires crude oil for its manufacture. This process itself is responsible for a lot of greenhouse gas emissions. Apart from this, the whole process is also very resource intensive. For example, over 8 litres of water is required to produce just one single-use water bottle of 1 litre. Considering the global scarcity of natural resources, wasting such vast amounts of it over a material that will be used just once, is simply unacceptable.
Polluting And Poisoning Our Food & Water Sources
Most of the discarded plastic that is collected gets either incinerated or disposed of to some landfill. The ones that are astray, sooner or later, end up in the ocean. Plastic, a petroleum-based product, takes an unnaturally long time to decompose. Various environmental factors, however, cause the plastic to break down until it becomes microscopic particles. When the plastic breaks down, it releases many of the toxic chemicals, such as BPA, which was used in its manufacture. As a result, the soil in the landfills, as well as the groundwater gets polluted.
America alone throws away 30 million tons of plastic every year. Presently, most nations around the world are just as guilty. From on top of the Mount Everest, to the bottom of Marianas Trench, plastic has almost entirely wrapped the entire planet!
The toxic chemicals, once in the soil and water, sooner or later makes its way into our systems. Already, our bloodstream has traces of these chemicals in it. Studies have linked the presence of such toxic chemicals to cancer, disrupting hormonal activities, affecting endocrine and immune system etc. The more exposed you are, to plastic, the higher the chances of your health taking a nosedive. And the problem is, we are all exposed! Here’s a little eye-opener: An era of plastic overkill
Animals Are Consuming Plastic, And That Includes You!
Most of the plastic littering the earth eventually finds its way to the ocean. Apart from this, globally, over 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. And this is perhaps the mammoth of all pollutions.
Have a taste for seafood? Studies show that one in four fish contains plastic particles. Going with the current trend, by 2050, we will have more plastic, by weight, than the fish in the sea!
The bigger pieces of plastic have seabirds and marine animals, entangled in it. The smaller ones choke the animals when ingested. The even smaller, microplastic, leads to more complicated ailments and diseases in the animals. And it’s on no small scale – already, plastic outnumbers the number of planktons in the ocean. Each year, millions of seabirds, turtles and other marine animals get killed due to plastic entanglement. The microscopic plastic once ingested by the smaller fishes and marine animals travels up the food chain to bigger and bigger animals that prey on the smaller ones. And finally, it makes it to our dinner tables, where we gulp down the expensive plastic platter, disguising itself as seafood!
In exchange for cheap convenience, single-use plastic, apart from the environment, also takes a big toll on our health, as well as our wealth.
Even though single-use plastic has a comparatively low production cost, the same is not true for its disposal. Collecting all the billions of pieces of discarded single-use plastic each year, separating, cleaning and then treating it, incurs a very high cost.
It costs’ us our limited resources to create, our precious health to sustain, and finally our money to get disposed.
Cleaning up all the plastic garbage mess we have created till date, quite justifiably, seems like a herculean task. Many large-scale beach cleanup, like Clean The Beach Boot Camp, and other similar cleanup activities need to initiated and then completed. Corporates and governments need to be forced to take action through large-scale public demand.
With such massive amounts of plastic trash choking and polluting our waterways, oceans, landfills etc., we are already up to our necks in this toxic soup. First and foremost, we must at least slow down, if not put a complete stop on single-use plastic production. Reducing our individual and community-based plastic usage is of the utmost importance. What you absolutely need or can’t do without, such plastic items should be reused. And finally, the plastic, which cannot be further reused, should be recycled. But those flimsy, low quality, resource eating and poison spewing single-use plastic that cannot be recycled – well it’s a no-brainer, that those monsters need to be banned entirely!
Knowledge without any action is just as useless as ignorance. Now that you know the consequences of single-use plastic, it is your responsibility to do your part in curbing the problem. Start with your own personal choices. Inspire your family into ditching cheap plastic. Here’s an article to help you become a Plastic Free Family. And finally, spread the word, for half a century’s worth of mess, will need many hands to clean. Share this article on your social media and let us know your thoughts on single-use plastic in the comments below.