This resource was created by Plastic Pollution Coalition and The Lexicon™. It explores the health and environmental impacts of single-use plastic. Featuring a diversity of Plastic Pollution Coalition members and voices, this resource illustrates everything you need to know about single-use plastic in an easy-to-read Q&A format.
SINGLE-USE PLASTIC EXPLAINED
Health and Environmental
After sailing across the Pacific Ocean in 2012 to study the Western Garbage Patch, Kristal Ambrose returned to her home in The Bahamas and launched a citizen science based initiative to study plastic concentrations on beaches in The Bahamas. Bahamas Plastic Movement raises awareness and finds solutions to plastic pollution through educational lectures, summer camp programs and citizen science projects, and her youth delegation successfully engaged the government of The Bahamas in 2018 to ban single-use plastics, styrofoam and balloon releases from the entire country by the year 2020.
Jackie Nuñez cared about the environment, especially her local beaches. She participated in beach cleanups for years, until one day she came to a sobering realization: it didn’t matter how many times she helped clean up a beach—the plastic would keep coming. Afterwards, she joined her cleanup colleagues at a seaside restaurant and was served a glass of water with a plastic straw she didn’t ask for. How many other people in that restaurant, in that city, in that country were getting the same water glasses with the same unasked for straws at the same time? A light bulb went on and The Last Plastic Straw was born. Her goal? To simply help restaurants and people save money and eliminate waste, starting with the plastic straw.
After China, Indonesia is the second largest plastic polluter in the world; they are responsible for nearly 10 percent of all marine plastic pollution. Two pre-teen sisters, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, decided to do something about it, demonstrating the power of youth by taking action in their community to drive change. Their Bye Bye Plastic Bags campaign led 23 Indonesian cities to establish taxes for plastic bags and to make further commitments to reduce their use. The movement quickly spread to fifteen different countries—including Nepal, Mexico, Italy, Colombia, Myanmar and Australia.
These are just some of the stories and people who’ve come together through the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a global alliance of more than 1,200 organizations, businesses, and thought leaders in 75 countries. We’ve gathered businesses, NGOs, scientists, artists, policymakers, surfers, chefs, and people just like you to solve this urgent global crisis.
With Single-Use Plastics Explained, we’ve asked experts from across the globe to share the belief that despite the sheer mass of plastic entering our oceans, plastic pollution is a problem we can solve. They provide insights on the presence of toxic chemicals in single-use plastic food packaging, on how microplastics impact our food chain, and on the deployment of successful Zero Waste systems in the Global South. They share a multitude of innovations, from refill systems using the “milkman” model to alternative products made from paper, wood, algae, glass, and stainless steel.
The plastic crisis is real. It touches every aspect of our lives. Even if you don’t see discarded plastic in your community, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in tap and bottled water, in salt, beer and honey, in oysters, clams, mussels, crabs, lobsters, and even inside us. The data is both staggering and real. The time is now to explore and embrace alternatives to single-use plastic in our foodware. Together, we are shifting the system to make better choices for the health of humans, animals, waterways, oceans, and our environment. We invite you to join us on this journey.
Nowadays, we touch plastic more than we touch our loved ones. It’s everywhere in our daily life and it gets into everything– the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food that we eat. But how?
Every time you drive your car, every time you take a step with your shoe, every time you open your dryer, or wash your clothes, microplastics are entering the environment.
Through a mixture of friction, erosion, and mechanical degradation, plastic gets smaller and disseminates to every corner of the globe. Yes, your shoes, clothes, and tires are all plastic. Wherever you look, you’ll find it– whether at the far reaches of the globe or in the atmosphere, plastic gets there first.
99% of plastics used today are made from fossil fuel feedstocks. As the world economy shifts to energy efficiency and renewable energy sources, the fossil fuel industry is investing in plastic production to replace those markets.
Dozens of new ethylene cracker plants are proposed in the US which rely on heating a waste product from fracking, ethane, to be used as a main ingredient for single-use plastic packaging. The World Economic Forum has stated that plastic production and plastic use will grow 3.8% every year through 2030.
Single-Use Plastics are disposable packaging and other items designed to be used only once and then discarded. Unlike refillable and reusable food ware, single-use Plastics consume a huge amount of energy, water, and natural resources to serve a customer for just a few minutes. Some are truly recyclable like water bottles but are still quite wasteful. Others like to-go food ware boxes may have a recycling symbol on them but are hard and costly to recycle, frequently ending up dumped, burned, or littered. Still others like plastic utensils, straws, cups and lids have no good destination and end up costing lots to send to a landfill or clean up off the streets. If handled poorly, all of these items can end up polluting our oceans, killing wildlife, and harming our ecosystems.
Aluminum beverage cans that are collected and sorted appropriately can be recycled into new cans. When these cans are uncoated, they can transfer aluminum into foods, which can be toxic. For this reason, aluminum food containers, such as beverage cans or water bottles, have an inner lining made from synthetic, plastic-like materials. But the chemical components of these liners—like bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that disrupts the human hormone system at low levels – also get into food.
Beyond aluminum cans, over 11,000 chemicals are used to make food packaging and other types of food contact materials. Many of these chemicals have never been tested for toxicity.
While recycling is important to reduce waste and environmental pollution, it can also lead to chemical contamination; this is of specific concern when food packaging is made from recycled material, because it can contain toxic pollutants like brominated flame retardants.
Another alternative is compostable packaging, but it must also be free of hazardous chemicals, including persistent fluorinated substances (PFAs) used for making paper grease and waterproof.
Plastics & Human Health
Everyday, we inhale, ingest, and touch plastic particles and plastic’s chemical additives that are toxic to human health—through the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the toys, packaging, and clothes we use.
At each stage of its lifecycle, plastic is toxic. The extraction of fossil fuels that create plastic emit over 170 carcinogenic and/or neurotoxic chemicals in fracking alone. The refining of those fuels into plastic pellets emits chemicals like benzene that are known bone marrow poisons. Plastic products also contain large quantities of toxic chemicals, up to 80% by mass. These include carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and heavy metals.
Disposing of plastic through incineration, land-filling, so-called chemical recycling, or ideas like plastic roads or houses also release scores of toxic substances into our air, water, and soils.
Finally, plastic, in the form of macro or microplastics, contaminates and accumulates in food chains, where it can release toxic additives or concentrate additional toxic chemicals, making them available again for direct or indirect human exposure.
Individually, each stage of the plastic lifecycle poses significant risks to human health. Together, the lifecycle impacts of plastic paint an unequivocally toxic picture: plastic threatens human health on a global scale
Endocrine disruptors are compounds that can interfere with the body’s hormones and the functions they control . The endocrine system controls numerous processes including development and growth, metabolism, reproduction, and the ability of an individual to respond to stress or environmental challenges, through the production of specific hormones, each of which plays unique roles in maintaining health . Although not all chemicals are endocrine disruptors, those that are can be found in plastics, industrial chemicals, household products, pesticides, personal care products, and other. Humans come into contact with endocrine disruptors predominantly through the diet, often through the leaching of plastics and industrial chemicals from plastic bottles and food containers . Although endocrine disruptors are a health concern throughout life, they are particularly problematic when exposure happens early in life – the fetus, infant, and child – as the body’s developing endocrine system is vulnerable to even small disruptions of natural hormones that are important for normal development. Research shows that humans and animals whose bodies contain higher concentrations of chemicals have a greater likelihood of developing long-term endocrine and brain disorders, including neurobehavioral problems, metabolic problems such as diabetes and obesity, cardiovascular disease, and fertility problems.
Microplastics are synthetic polymers between 1 micron and 5 millimeters in size. They are either manufactured as microplastics or are formed through the fragmentation of larger plastics over time. Millions of tons of plastic leak into our waters each year due to large quantities of single-use plastic being consumed and mismanaged. Once in the environment, plastic pollution breaks into microplastics through sun exposure and weathering. Microplastics transport, absorb and release hazardous chemicals throughout the environment. Harmful additives in the plastic leach out. They act as a sponge for pollutants already in the environment, absorbing and concentrating chemicals many magnitudes higher than the surrounding water. Due to their small size, these highly contaminated pieces are easily transported around the globe, through ingestion, wind and water currents. Microplastics are found in the air, marine and freshwater habitats, terrestrial ecosystems, animals, our food, drinking water and in our bodies. The long-term human and environmental health implications of microplastic pollution are unknown.
Yes, there are microplastics and microfibers in our drinking water.
The reach of microplastic pollution extends from the Earth’s atmosphere to the deep-sea bed to the drinking water consumed by millions of people. Research conducted for the nonprofit news organization Orb Media and by other independent researchers has found microscopic plastic fibers in piped tap water from cities around the globe, and microplastic fragments in the world’s leading bottled water brands. The human health implications of this contamination are unknown; there’s been precious little research into this important question. Scientists and consumers want to know if microscopic plastic particles that are inadvertently consumed with food and beverages accumulate in the body and what effect, if any, they might have on human wellbeing.
In our global tap water study we found microplastics in 83% of the samples (94% of U.S. samples) and 99% of those microplastics were identified as microfibers. On average there were about 5 microfibers in a liter of tap water. Looking at the same size category, we found twice as much microplastic within bottled water, though only 16% of those microplastics were identified as microfibers.
Within bottled water it seems the majority of the microplastics are coming from the bottling process itself, while in tap water we think it is largely coming from contact with the air and to a lesser extent from the water treatment and delivery infrastructure.
Plastic and the environment.
Synthetic Polymers, commonly known as plastics, have become a permanent part of the marine environment. Current ice and sediment cores reveal an abundance of these recently deposited anthropogenic polymers. In 1972, J.B. Colton of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Rhode Island, and E. J. Carpenter of Woods Hole, published articles in Science which speculated that the problem was likely to get worse and that toxic, non-polymeric compounds in plastics, known as plasticizers, could be delivered to marine organisms as a potential effect. Carpenter and Colton’s speculations were correct—probably more so than they imagined. The quantity of plastics in ocean waters has increased enormously, and toxic plastic additives, as well as toxicants concentrated by plastics from the surrounding seawater, have been documented in many marine species.
Garbage patches are a bit of a misnomer; the term plastic smog is more descriptive.
Let me explain.
The contribution of plastic to the environment may come from maritime activities (shipping, fishing, illegal dumping at sea, recreational boating), land-based emissions (rivers, beaches, beach trash washing back in) and even airborne as microfibers, which were recently found in the Alps and Arctic snow.
Plastics from maritime activities that are lost far offshore have the best chance of migrating to the 5 subtropical gyres, whereas 90% of coastal emissions are largely traveling in coastal waters and pushed back on shore Only 10% or less makes it from land to the subtropical gyres.
Once plastics enter the environment, as macro and microplastics, they begin to fragment due to UV degradation, oxidation, embrittlement and biological interaction. They become smaller and smaller until they are either washed ashore somewhere, ingested by filter-feeders, or become so small they are taken deep by currents that take them around the world.
These trillions of microplastics, horizontally and vertically in all waters, form the smog of the sea.
Single-Use Plastic packaging threatens our climate on a global scale. Throughout plastic’s lifecycle, from drilling the fossil fuels that compose 99% of plastic, to refining, manufacture, and disposal, plastic emits greenhouse gases and is a significant driver of climate change.
The plastic and petrochemical industries are poised to quadruple plastic production by 2050, largely to flood our markets with single-use plastic products. This expansion threatens humanity’s ability to keep global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
By 2050, plastic production and disposal could generate greenhouse emissions equivalent to 615 coal plants every year and consume up to 13% of Earth’s remaining carbon budget. Worse still, microplastics may be interfering with the ocean’s ability to absorb and sequester carbon, our biggest natural carbon sink.
In the U.S., container deposit laws have been adopted in 10 states and Guam. The percentage of containers diverted from the landfill is much higher in these states than in states without a program, thus container deposit laws are effective in helping to reduce plastics pollution. Container deposits range from 5 cents to 15 cents and one of the best examples of a container deposit law is in Oregon, where the deposit is 10 cents and the capture rate is 81 percent In 1971, litter control was a primary reason for initiating Oregon’s bill and since then the percentage of beverage containers among roadside litter has dropped from 40 percent to 6 percent of the materials picked up. While container deposit laws are a big step towards increased capture of recyclable containers, reduction and reuse should be the ultimate goal and the main focus should be on refillable containers. The best examples of refillable beverage container programs are in Germany, where plastic beverage bottles have a deposit and are collected and cleaned then refilled 20-25 times before being recycled, and Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables program, where a subset of glass bottles returned are washed and refilled.
The effects of single-use plastic, including containers and packaging, on marine animal health range from detrimental to lethal. Animals are getting entangled in plastic items such as six-pack rings, plastic bags, and fishing-line, which impede their movements at best or lead to a torturous death by strangulation or slow starvation. Often, plastic is mistaken as food and ingested which can lead to obstructions of the digestive tract or the perforation of stomach and intestinal walls and eventually death. Even the ingestion of smaller quantities of plastic, which are not immediately lethal, has been shown to reduce the chances of survival of individuals More recently, studies have started to investigate the effects of certain toxins, including neurotoxins such as mercury and endocrine disrupters such as PCBs that preferentially adhere to the surface of plastics in particular, microplastics of 5mm or smaller. Microplastics are ingested by a variety of animals as small as zooplankton and the toxins accumulate in an individual’s tissue (bioaccumulation). When travelling up the food chain, the concentrations of these toxins increase with each consumer (called biomagnification). More and more evidence amasses that these toxins cause infertility and other health issues such as malnutrition and high newborn mortality in especially the top predators of food chains, such as sharks and orcas. All in all, plastic pollution affects and kills marine life throughout the ocean in various ways.
What happens to plastic.
Despite what you may think, there is no proof that plastic material recyclability or access to recycling bins genuinely reduces plastic pollution.
In The Behavioral Economics of Recycling study published in the October 2016 Harvard Business Review, Remi Trudel at Boston University performed tests that showed people used more cups and gift wrap when there was a recycling bin available. The findings suggested that “consumers feel comfortable using a larger amount of a resource when recycling is an option”. In testimony to the Colorado State Legislature in defense of expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam food containers over replacement by recyclable products, a chemical industry representative stated “This doesn’t mean replacement products will be recycled or reduce litter”. There are many types of plastics used in food packaging and service and most of them cannot be practically recycled due to the complexity, diversity, contamination and geographical dispersion of the waste materials. The cost of trucks and drivers to collect plastic waste, labor to separate it into different types of plastics, fresh water to clean it and finally the investment in the processing equipment and operation of the recycling plant is prohibitively high. Technical processes for recycling many types of plastic packaging have not been proven outside of a laboratory on real world waste. Even the recycling of few plastic packages that are practically recyclable, such as polyethylene terephthalate (PET) beverage bottles, is wasteful because a significant portion of the collected PET bottle material must be discarded. In 2017, the plastic bottle industry reported that 29.2% of PET bottles were collected in the U.S., but over a quarter (28%) of that collected material was disposed.
Promoting chemical recycling distracts from the massive expansion of plastic production and the growing plastic pollution crisis. Industry deflects responsibility with a focus on “litterbugs” rather than the product producers. Presenting mechanical recycling as the solution, focusing on Asia, claiming that chemical recycling will solve the problem are false solutions.
Analogy: Chemical recycling is to the plastic pollution crisis like carbon capture & sequestration (CCS) is to climate change. It’s prohibitively expensive, not proven to technically work and no one wants one in their neighborhood.
Chemical recycling is flawed
- It creates a significant amount of hazardous waste and toxic air emissions
- Only a portion, about 50%, of the collected waste material is actually turned into something else. The rest is wasted. Example: the Dow Hefty Bag Chemical Recycling Process to make diesel crude makes 40-50% waste according to Mike Moran of Dow Chemical in answer to Karl’s question at Waste Expo. More on Hefty Bag Chemical Recycling flaws on GAIA’s webpage.
- It cannot handle the variety of impurities found in plastic waste. The Dow Hefty Bag Chemical Recycling process cannot process PET bottles! So people in Boise, ID are told not to recycle PET bottles.
- Like incineration, it will bring thousands of trucks to the neighborhood around the plant. No one will want the plant in their neighborhood.
Chemical recycling plants are expensive to build and operate, and rely on government subsidizes, which means the public pays.
- The ACC and PLASTICS lobbying for public funding to build chemical recycling plants.
- The companies in the Recover Coalition and ACC make many billions of dollars in profit each year.
- Due to the high cost to build and operate the plants and trucks, the products made (fuel, chemicals, etc.) will always be more expensive than “prime” or “new” products simply made from cheap oil/gas. These plants will continue to rely on public subsidies in perpetuity.
Chemical companies promote chemical recycling to address the complicated products they produce which are not recyclable by mechanical means.
It’s short-sighted for the U.S. to ship our plastic pollution overseas expecting other countries to deal with it or ‘recycle’ it, often in unsafe conditions. There is no ‘away.’ Our plastic waste may be out of sight, but in reality it just ends up in someone else’s backyard. The time is now to guide corporations and companies to move away from toxic single-use plastic towards zero-waste systems.
The rapid expansion of the use of synthetic polymers over the last half century has led many to call this the “Age of Plastics.” There is no real mystery as to why plastics have become the predominant material of the current epoch. The use value of the material is truly surprising. It can substitute for nearly every traditional material, from textiles to metal at reduced cost and weight, and offers qualities unknown in naturally occurring substances, thereby feeding a worldwide industry. The plastic industry creates an infinity of new applications and products with growth trending sharply upward and showing no signs of slowing in the foreseeable future. Laser printing using plastic “ink” will guarantee expanded use of polymeric feedstocks for the creation of three dimensional objects as widely divergent as bookmarks and houses, both of which I have seen manufactured by this technology.
Although the majority of plastics produced today use petroleum resources which are finite, the carbon backbone of synthetic polymers can be fashioned from switchgrass, soybeans, corn, sugar cane or other renewable resources—price alone determines industry’s preference. The fact that synthetic polymers can be made from row crops (so-called biopolymers) need have nothing to do with their biodegradability. Olefins are still olefins and acrylates are still acrylates, and behave like their petroleum fabricated counterparts. Furthermore biodegradability standards are not applicable in the marine environment and marine degradability requires a separate standard. Marine degradable plastics, such as polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), have been found to fully degrade in both seawater and marine sediments in my lab, but have a negligible market share, and are not poised to make rapid headway into the consumer plastics market at the present time. The difficulty of recycling plastics has made profitable recovery for nearly all plastics a major problem, which in turn results in failure to provide take back infrastructure and results in haphazard discard and loss to the environment.
Did you know that nearly 95% of single-use plastic never gets recycled? Where does it go? Unfortunately, much of it ends up in landfills, while the rest ends up getting burned in incinerators. In fact, six times more plastic waste is burned in the United States than is recycled.
Waste-to-energy” is actually a waste OF energy, resources, and money.
Incineration of plastic has been proven time and time again as ineffective and hazardous to human health. Burning trash is one of the most expensive forms of energy generation in the U.S., 2x that of nuclear, and 2x that of solar and 3x the cost of wind. The companies that run these incinerators get millions in tax dollars, and in turn the taxes that residents pay go toward poisoning the places where they live, work and raise their families. Incinerators are known to emit such pollutants as carbon monoxide, mercury, and lead. Many of these pollutants– even in trace amounts– can significantly impact human health, and disproportionately impact communities living close to incinerators, roughly 80% of which are lower income communities and/or communities of color. And if that weren’t bad enough, burning plastic in incinerators will only make climate change worse. Plastic is made from fossil fuels, so every ton of plastic burned releases almost one ton of greenhouse gas emissions. Globally, burning plastic packaging adds 16 million metric tons of GHGs into the air, equivalent to more than 2.7 million homes’ electricity use for one year!
We can’t burn our plastic problem away, poisoning communities and our climate in the process. Instead, cities and states can adopt policies aimed at reducing plastic like bans and fees, and hold companies to account for their wasteful products. These policies give businesses the opportunity to rethink and redesign their products and packaging so that plastic pollution will become a thing of the past. It’s time for the world to #breakfreefromplastic!
Zero Waste is a philosophy that aims to avoid waste and preserve resources through responsible production and consumption practices. Keeping within the environmental boundaries of our planet will require systemic change, with no hazard to people’s health or our ecosystems, and will mean embracing the principles of a more circular economy.
Following the Zero Waste path entails a behavioral change that will move us away from our current throw-away society, curb plastic pollution, and ensure a more sustainable management of resources, especially regarding the use of single-use and short-lived plastics. These have the highest disposal rates and the lowest recyclability, while posing a major challenge to our health, ecosystems and economy.
By reducing our use of single-use products, and by making products responsible by design (long-lasting, reusable, recyclable, toxic-free, and incorporating recycled content), and by investing in waste prevention systems such as reuse, we can join others who have already started down the Zero Waste path.