The Devastating Impact of Single-Use Plastic on Our Environment: Why We Need to Make a Change Now
Take a look around you. How much of what you see is composed of plastic? With the huge demand for convenience in our society, plastic production, especially single-use plastic is widely out of control. It’s substantially cheaper to produce plastic from scratch than to recycle it, so a huge percentage ends up in landfills, our waterways or as litter.
Why do we use so much single-use plastic? Well, it makes cheap packaging for just about everything, plus it’s durable and won’t break like glass. It is lightweight when compared to other materials like wood, metal or glass and is super versatile. You can make it as thin or thick as you need, so it is suitable to use for nearly unlimited functions.
With all this in mind it’s no surprise that society has become attached to, and dependent on the ease and simplicity that plastic offers. However, the repercussions of single-use plastic usage mean that we are slowly killing the planet with the volume of plastic, and as result, plastic waste, that we are currently producing. To give you a perspective, as much as 35.7 million tons of plastics were produced in the United States in 2018, and on average, each person in the USA currently accounts for 110 pounds of single-use plastic waste. Yes, things are that bad!
The impact of plastic production
It’s extremely unsettling that we all are addicted to the comfort and convenience of single-use plastic. The entire lifespan of plastic is littered with the use of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases that negatively impact the environment.
Around 99% of the world’s plastic is produced from petrochemicals, especially petroleum and natural gases. These are refined into plastic and plastic precursors through a process called cracking, which extracts the raw materials needed to produce plastic, but also emits carbon and generates greenhouse gasses.
As of 2019, it was determined that nearly 4-8% of annual global oil consumption was associated with plastic production, and a further 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions (almost double the emissions caused by the aviation industry), were directly linked to plastic’s lifecycle. Plus, the transportation of raw materials needed to produce plastic also has a negative impact on the environment.
Currently, 61% of total plastic greenhouse gas emissions are as a result of the process used to turn raw materials into plastic resins along with the transportation involved in the production of plastic. The saddest part is that most of these plastics will only be used once and then discarded.
Deforestation for oil extraction and pipeline construction is another plastic-related mass producer of greenhouse gases, and has resulted in over 1.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. But it gets worse; apart from the amount of greenhouse gases needed for the type of large-scale deforestation that is common with plastic production and transportation, cutting down trees also reduces the amount of CO2 that can be withdrawn from the atmosphere through photosynthesis by plants. Thus, leading to inhalation of polluted air for all life forms on land.
Greenhouse gases caused by plastic degradation
Due to different levels of technology across the globe, varying awareness and limited collecting capacity, most of the world’s plastic ends up not being recycled. In fact, only about 9% of all manufactured plastic is recycled.
Unfortunately, most of the plastic that does not get recycled or incinerated, ends up as problematic waste either in landfills or in the ocean, and could take hundreds of years to degrade. Beyond the gases released into the atmosphere when plastics are incinerated (around 12% of all plastic waste), the plastic degradation process that takes place in landfills and in the ocean also causes a release of greenhouse gases into the environment.
For a little back story, most plastic is petroleum-based and non-biodegradable, and so doesn't decompose naturally. Plastic will only break down thanks to solar UV radiation, wind, wave action, and other natural phenomena. This process could take as many as 400 years for one piece of plastic! But during this time, plastic doesn't remain inactive. It will continue to emit greenhouse gases throughout the degradation process.
In a 2018 study, researchers found that virgin plastics including high and low-density polyethylene (HDPE and LDPE), acrylic plastic (AC), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), all produce hydrocarbon gases including methane and ethylene when exposed to UV rays. They also found that these gases were produced even by aged plastics, which means that they are likely going to be produced throughout the lifecycle of the plastic. In total, the greenhouse gases produced in the life cycle of plastics currently accounts for 3.8% of total greenhouse gases globally.
How single-use plastic is bad for our environment
Whenever aquatic livestock washes up on shores, they almost always have some plastic around them. Some of them die by ingesting plastic, and others die by getting trapped in all that plastic. This is known as rafting, and it is responsible for the forceful migration of several species of fish, creation of false habitats by other aquatic animals, and risk of extinction of the species that are unable to survive in new environments.
This debris can carry mussels, amphipods, jellyfish, and seahorses, across the ocean to entirely new surroundings where they go on to spread bacteria and algae that would have been safe in their original habitat, but are now poisonous to the lifeforms in their new habitat.
Sadly, rafting is just one of many ways plastic pollutes the ocean. Another is through leachate from dumps or landfills, which enter the ocean as a result of a leak during transportation, or stormwater runoff. Leachate is a highly odorous black or brown liquid that commonly contains heavy metals, such as lead, and volatile organic compounds or VOCs. It is highly toxic and can cause havoc in the ocean.
Leachate rarely gets leaked directly from landfills because most modern landfills are equipped with leachate treatment systems and thick protective barriers. Instead, the leaks are more likely to occur during the transportation of waste from land to ocean-sited landfills, and as a result of rainwater running off from landfills into the oceans.
Landfills also attract birds which feast on the debris before it is buried causing secondary contamination by leaving bodily waste in the water. In general, landfills account for 15% of methane emissions per year, which include degradation from single-use plastics and other types of waste. This is equivalent to emissions from 21.6 million passenger vehicles, or the energy requirement of 12 million homes!
How single-use plastic harms wildlife
The damage done to aquatic/marine life can not be overstated. From an estimated 41% of seabird species who accidentally ingest plastic thinking it is food, to fish and turtles who either ingest plastic, or get trapped in plastic debris and ghost fishing gear, animals have been incredibly affected.
When aquatic animals aren’t being suffocated or forcefully transported by plastic waste, they are ingesting it, which is another problem entirely. When animals ingest plastic, it can cause starvation because the plastic, though indigestible, still takes up space in the stomach. Thus, preventing the animal from ingesting actual food that can serve as a source of nutrients, and resulting in the starvation to death of these poor animals.
An animal that ingests plastic could also die as a result of the plastic piercing internal organs which can either lead to death directly, or cause sepsis in the internal organs. Filter feeders like plankton and shellfish are prime victims of ingesting plastic waste, but other larger animals like fish, turtles, dolphins, whales, and seabirds are also largely affected.
Recently, and somewhat surprisingly, camels have been affected by plastic waste spreading across the desert. A recent study by the Executive Council of Dubai suggests that up to 50% of camels reported dead, have died due to lumps of indigestible plastic materials that form a painful blockage in their stomachs. These blockages either lead to death directly, or cause a spike in bacteria, which results in illness, and eventual death.
In addition to this, the degradation of plastics also releases chemicals into the ocean which are harmful to aquatic and wildlife, and can cause significant developmental and biological adverse effects, even in low amounts.
The long-lasting impact of single-use plastic
The worst part of having plastic do all this damage is that plastic is relatively everlasting. Styrofoam was discovered in the 1940s, and because polystyrene can last hundreds of years, it is possible that every piece of styrofoam ever produced still exists. And it will outlast everyone who is alive now. That is the longevity of plastic.
So even if you use a piece of plastic once in a restaurant, or as part of packaging that you then discard, chances are that that piece of plastic will still be around for at least a century. This is because as earlier stated, only 9% of plastic produced will be recycled, and about 79% will end up in landfills.
It’s also important to note that throughout these centuries, the plastic doesn’t decompose. It slowly degrades into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic, until it becomes microplastics (particles smaller than 5 mm), or nano plastics (particles smaller than 100 nm), which are difficult to clean and will continually emit toxic by-products as they break down.
What is being done to combat the problem of single-use plastic?
What is being done to remedy the flood of problems caused by single-use plastic? Who are those standing up to the task of saving the planet from plastic waste, and what are they doing?
Major efforts are being made to encourage recycling and reduce the number of single-use plastics being discarded per year. Efforts have been made to encourage the use of either reusable bagging options like tote bags, or biodegradable paper bags in grocery stores and larger supermarkets, as well as fast food and retail restaurants. Some outlets have provided reusable tote bags, available for low cost and also offered discounts to people willing to forgo plastic bags, while other outlets charge extra for plastic bags.
Some coffee shops have also decided to give discounts if you bring your own reusable cups or water bottles. Others have started switching to compostable coffee pods from Nespresso, switching out in-service plastic for glass, and switching out other plastic utensils like straws and coffee mixers, for paper equivalents.
Governments have also taken bold steps in the fight against plastic. While some have banned plastic products like bags and styrofoam in favor of biodegradable plastic options, others have increased taxes on the purchase of single-use plastic items, with bans in view. Some governments have also taken recycling initiatives such as India’s recycled waste plastic roads.
Microbeads, which are essentially microplastic particles, have been banned for use in most facial scrub products which had them originally, due to strict government health regulations.
How can you reduce your single-use plastic consumption?
Individuals are not left out of the fight against single-use plastic pollution. There are steps you can take to become more eco-friendly.
For starters, you can buy more reusable items such as reusable water bottles and containers that you can use to bring drinks and snacks with you when you leave the house. You can also invest in reusable bags; tote bags for picking up groceries, and silicone bags to store leftover food, instead of using single-use plastic for both purposes.
You should also aim to buy groceries in bulk, and use just one bag or container, rather than take multiple trips using multiple bags where one would have sufficed. You can make a significant impact on the amount of plastic that gets thrown away by storing and reusing what would otherwise be single-use plastics, a few times before discarding.
Finally, try embarking on a plastic-free period. You can go for as long as you are comfortable with. You can even turn it into a fun challenge for your household, and use it to explain the need to be more conscious of plastic use and its impact on our environment.
While alone we can make a small impact, together we can save the Earth!