Single-use plastics, also known as disposable plastics, refer to plastic items that are intended to be thrown away and discarded after being used once. Even if they’re marked as recyclable, they’re designed to be disposed of after a single-use. Whether or not they make it to recycling plants is another story (spoiler alert: most of them don’t).
Think of all the items you discard after using them once. From plastic spoons and forks to plastic straws and cotton buds, there’s a huge amount of single-use plastics that we use in our daily lives.
Benefits of Single-Use Plastics
If we’re using them every day, they can’t be all that bad, right? We’ll be honest with you; single-use plastics have plenty of benefits. There’s a reason they came into existence, after all. They’re convenient, cost-friendly, and user-friendly.
Most disposable plastic items were introduced for these specific reasons. For instance, plastic utensils and cutlery became popular in the 1960s and 70s as a response to cutting labour costs in restaurants. Restaurant owners wanted to lower the energy consumed in cleaning silverware and the labour costs required for it. Plastic cutlery seemed like a pretty good option then, and to be fair, it was effective. Restaurant staff had fewer dishes to clean, and consumers got travel-friendly cutlery when getting takeout meals.
Similarly, plastic items used in the healthcare industry have made drug administration, disease prevention, and hygiene management easier. Instruments such as plastic wraps, bandages, sealable bags, and syringes help the medical staff as well as patients.
However, while single-use plastics may be cheaper and offer certain advantages, all that glitters isn’t gold. They still contribute to the growing plastic pollution.
How Do Single-Use Plastics Affect Us?
For decades, corporations have been advocating for single-use plastics. They’ve built a narrative outlining the necessity of single-use plastics, promoting consumerism. Sure, some single-use plastics may be recycled, but that doesn’t change the fact that we’re given disposable plastic solutions that do more harm than good in the long run.
So, why is there an ongoing debate surrounding single-use plastics? What is it about these disposable and seemingly convenient items that have compelled environmentalists and policy makers to call for a ban on single-use plastics?
For starters, these disposable plastic items aren’t biodegradable. This means that they cannot fully break down into components that can be decomposed organically. Instead, they only break down into micro particles that further pollute the environment. Thus, when single-use plastics end up in landfills, they’re essentially taking up space that could’ve been used for the decomposition of other materials.
Most plastic waste isn’t recycled, despite products claiming to be recyclable. Instead, it’s usually dumped (see what we mean about plastic taking up landfill space?) or burned. The microplastics produced from the breakdown of single-use plastics also contaminate the environment. There have been several studies outlining the presence of microplastics in oceans and water sources, landfills, food, and recently, even in human blood.
Unfortunately, single-use plastic consumption has increased drastically during the Covid-19 pandemic. As businesses closed or minimised operations and social distancing was practiced, single-use plastics such as cutlery and medical items were widely used. Using disposable items also falsely reassured people that they were using “safer” options during a time of self-isolating and social distancing. This has worsened the plastic pollution crisis globally.
The Ban on Single-Use Plastics
In November 2021, the UK government announced a ban on single-use plastics. This ban pertains to items such as disposable plates, cups, cutlery, straws, and food and beverage containers. Reports show that of the 1.1 billion single-use plates and 4.3 billion single-use cutlery items used in the country annually, only 10% are actually recycled after being disposed. This has prompted policy makers to take swift action and advocate for more sustainable alternatives.
The ban is also said to affect the production and distribution of plastic items such as wet wipes, sachets, and tobacco filters. Additionally, there are reports that the UK government plans on enforcing mandatory product labelling to assist consumers with adequately disposing of the plastic items they purchase.
What Does the Ban on Single-Use Plastics Accomplish?
Many critics have called the government’s initiative the tip of the iceberg. According to experts, it may take more than a year for the ban to become part of the law and be truly enforced. Thus, the ban may come into force no sooner than April 2023.
It doesn’t sound ideal, does it? Governments and authority bodies need to act much faster to combat the plastics crisis and make a significant environmental impact. With more and more reports of microplastics damaging ecosystems, killing marine life, and affecting the health and wellbeing of living organisms (yes, humans as well), there’s a need for swift action and response.
So, what does the ban really accomplish? Is it just a set of rules that theoretically could help save the environment? Is the government just humouring environmentalists with a ban that could take several months to fully come into effect?
Not necessarily. As we mentioned above, single-use plastics have been around for a long time and have helped consumers in various ways. Of course, it’s going to take some time to fully eliminate single-use plastics from the face of the earth.
This ban is a step forward in the right direction. It’ll help prevent tonnes of plastic waste from entering landfills and water streams by urging consumers to opt for alternatives. It’ll also help manufacturers devise innovative solutions and implement eco-friendly practices, bringing about eco-consciousness within industries. Moreover, the ban will help shape the consumer mindset and help them become more cognizant of their choices.
Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics
Given the popularity of single-use plastics, it’s impossible to give them up without effective replacements. The good news is that there are various alternatives to commonly used single-use plastics available that can help consumers make the switch to non-plastic items easily.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the worst single-use plastics and their alternatives.
Plastic straws are a menace to the environment. They’re instantly discarded after usage and end up in landfills or oceans. No wonder there’s been a growing demand to ban plastic straws completely and replace them with other options.
Alternatives: bamboo straws and metal straws.
What do you think happens to those cute little cocktail stirrers in your glass once you’ve finished your drink? They get discarded without being recycled, contributing to plastic pollution.
Alternatives: bamboo cocktail stirrers.
Before collecting your favourite hot beverage from your local coffee shop, make sure you’re not using plastic cups. Millions of disposable plastic cups are used each year and end up in waste bins. A significant portion of these is unrecyclable. Imagine the amount of landfill space they’d take!
Alternatives: glass cups, metal cups, and bamboo cups.
You see them in your takeout meals, at picnics, on airplanes and buses, and pretty much anything or any place that serves food. That’s how popular plastic cutlery is. It almost seems like there’s no escaping it, but there are actually quite a few options available that you can choose from instead.
Alternatives: bamboo cutlery, wooden cutlery, and metal cutlery.
Plastic Cotton Buds
Your ear hygiene shouldn’t come at the cost of the planet’s future. Around 1.8 billion plastic cotton buds are disposed of in the UK each year, adding to the country’s plastic pollution. Luckily, many eco-conscious brands now offer alternatives to single-use plastic cotton buds.
Alternatives: bamboo cotton buds and fluid ear washes.
Are you guilty of using a plastic bag each time you go shopping? Say goodbye to polythene bags once and for all by using sustainable options.
Alternatives: paper bags, jute bags, and cloth bags.
The next time you’re about to buy a plastic water bottle, don’t. Seriously, you don’t need another plastic bottle that you can’t even reuse enough times. It’s better to use replacements that allow you to reduce your plastic consumption.
Alternatives: glass bottles and metal bottles/flasks.
There’s an alternative for almost all kinds of single-use plastics you’ve gotten too used to. All you need to do is make an effort to utilise these options and opt for more sustainable and eco-friendly items.
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