The ubiquitous scourge of single-use plastics

Delicious Canadian Cheeto analogue, packaged in single-use plastic.

Single use plastics permeate into nearly every facet of our activity in the modern world. There’s a good reason for this; in many ways, plastics, and in particular disposable packaging, are a backbone of modern distribution mechanisms. For better and worse, plastic is a great packing material: it is light, and thus cheap to transport, and helps maintain freshness of perishable foods. Additionally, there are some applications where plastics are absolutely indispensable, such as in medicine, where clean equipment is absolutely necessary for preventing the spread of disease. And as many of us experience on a daily basis, single use plastics can make life easier and more convenient.

But all of this convenience comes at an enormous cost, both from a carbon footprint perspective, and a pollution standpoint. As much as 9.1 million tons of plastic will end up in the ocean this year, causing significant ecological damage. Most plastics are petroleum based, so their production requires oil; in addition, landfills are enormous producers of emissions, especially of methane gas. The amount of oil that is used to make plastics is estimated to be between 4 and 8 percent of oil consumption. While plastic is recyclable, in 2015, only 20 percent of plastic waste was recycled.

To help think about the carbon cost of using plastic on a more individual scale, I wanted to know how much CO2 is used to produce plastic. This website suggests that producing 1 kg of plastic generates 5 kg of CO2 emissions. A second source gives a similar conversion rate in terms of plastic bottles (basically a 5 to 1 CO2 emission weight to plastic weight ratio). So, let’s say I produce 200 pounds of plastic waste per year (about 4 pounds per week- I think this is a reasonable-ish estimate for my personal plastic consumption). An article in Stanford magazine from 2011 suggests that recycling can reclaim 30 percent of the CO2 emissions per unit of plastic; so, while recycling plastic is somewhat helpful for reducing carbon emission impact, it’s a fairly small overall reduction. Let’s say I recycle 180 pounds of my plastic waste, and throw away the other twenty pounds; that’d lead me to a net emission of around 730 pounds of CO2 from my plastic consumption. This is a fairly minor fraction of my 16-40 metric tons of emissions per year. So, while I do think there is significant value (especially from an ecological standpoint) in reducing our dependence on plastic, the effect on an individual’s carbon footprint is relatively small relative to other measures one could take.

In looking at my own plastic consumption, I can identify several primary streams of plastic waste. The biggest places where I use plastics (besides in my work in the lab, which I discussed here) are: 1) food packaging, 2) disposable utensils when I’m not eating meals at home and 3) packaging of stuff that we buy (although this is a somewhat distant third). If you want to get super hardcore and really minimize your waste, there are lots of resources, including this blog from a woman in Oakland who has gone completely plastic-free and the seemingly ubiquitous “I can fit all my trash in a Mason jar” internet phenomenon. I think these endeavors are really impressive, and if you’re up for that, more power to you! But I also think there are smaller, easier steps that might be more doable for more people that are worth implementing, even if they’re not quite as comprehensive.

I found this list from My Plastic Free Life to actually have a lot of good ideas for reducing your plastic waste. The list has 100 suggestions of ways you can cut out plastic in your daily life; while I’m not going to pick up all of these suggestions, there are a few that will be very impactful without being massively inconvenient.

One easy change is that I’ve recently purchased a couple of sets of silverware from Goodwill to keep at work (in the spirit of not creating waste, I didn’t want to buy anything new for this endeavor, as much as possible!). I used to use a set of compostable single use utensils at lunch pretty much every day; but it’s been easier than I thought it would be to remember to grab my fork from my desk drawer before lunch, so I haven’t used a disposable fork since bringing my silverware!

We’re also looking for grocery items that we can easily replace with items from bulk bins at the grocery store, and buying storage canisters for such foods. I think it’ll take us a few trips to Goodwill to collect a good collection of containers, but we have already acquired a few canisters where we’re storing walnuts, farro and nutritional yeast (yep, that’s a weird set of items, I know…). Once we have enough containers, I think we can start buying most of our nuts, almond butter, and rice from bulk bins without additional packaging.

We’re also making two changes to how we buy produce; we usually shop at Trader Joe’s, but TJ’s is well known for using a pretty substantial amount of packaging for their produce items. So, we’re changing some of our produce buying habits. First, we’re starting to buy more of our leafy-green type produce from a regular grocery store, where we can get it without packaging. I found these reusable produce bags in our house (that sounds weird, but it’s true- the previous homeowners left these in a cabinet accidentally- but we’ve literally had them lying around for two years now!). Additionally, we’re starting to switch more of our produce buying over to Imperfect Produce, which I love. Imperfect Produce is a company that sells exactly what it says- slightly imperfect produce, like lemons that are weirdly small, or slightly blemished oranges. This produce is completely fine, but can’t be sold in grocery stores because most consumers won’t pick the weird looking produce in a sea of beautiful, perfect fruits. Imperfect Produce sells these imperfect fruits and veggies at a discount price, and delivers them to your house for a small delivery fee ($5 per delivery). You can customize your box, so you have control over what you’re getting, and the produce comes with significantly less packaging than what we’d normally buy at the grocery store. The only downside is that Imperfect often has a limited selection; so, we haven’t been able to completely replace buying regular produce from the store.

Re-useable produce bags.

Two other common sources of plastic waste are of course plastic bottles and takeout containers. A good friend of mine works at CamelBak, so we have lots of beloved reusable water bottles; I’ll be making an effort to carry mine with me all the time this year (especially in the summer) so that the temptation to buy plastic bottles isn’t even a factor. The use of takeout containers is a harder habit to change for me; while we don’t eat takeout often, I feel awful about the pile of trash every time we do. I’ll be trying out bringing my own tupperwares if I’m going to get takeout; has anyone ever done this? Any tips?

One of my goals for this year is also to just buy less stuff, and buy used items whenever possible. This is the reason for our Goodwill expeditions to procure tupperwares and silverware for work; I’ll be monitoring my consumption in general over the next few months, and will work to identify behaviors that lead to regular waste production (like my utensil habit at work). I’m being honest that I’m not dedicated enough to go fully zero waste, but I want to make reductions wherever I can!

Would you go zero waste? What changes are you able to make to reduce your use of single-use plastics?

P.S. One important but heretofore unmentioned aspect of using more reusable products is the relative environmental cost of reusable cups/utensils/plates versus paper or plastic. These kinds of analyses are somewhat complicated, and depend a lot on making assumptions about how much energy it takes to wash the reusable items, how the items were produced in the first place, and what the source of the energy being used for cleaning is. BUT, it seems that many analyses looking at these types of questions conclude that it takes as little as 10 uses and as many as a few hundred uses to break even by using a reusable cup compared to a paper cup. If you’re curious, I looked at this study and this study, which were both helpful for understanding the information you need to study this and what kinds of assumptions are made in doing so.

P.P.S. I found a number of sources very helpful in researching this post. Here’s a few links in case you want to learn more (and there’s lots more information a quick Google away):

SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: A Roadmap for Sustainability (report from the UN)

Our World in Data: FAQ on Plastics

The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics (report from the World Economic Forum)

Plastics, the environment and human health: current consensus and future trends

One thought on “The ubiquitous scourge of single-use plastics

  1. Yea, Melissa!! Keep at the reductions in plastic use!!
    I keep several take out containers in my car including a camping sort of container with a well-sealing lid that I purchased from Life Without Plastic – a great resource!. I also ask restaurants if I can take my left-overs in a piece of aluminum foil if I don’t have my car because aluminum is so recyclable.
    Natural Grocer sells most of its produce without packaging.


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