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The Problem with Single Use Plastic

December 04, 2020 5 min read

Plastic Waste in the Ocean

Single Use Plastics Littering a Beach

Globally, we have become completely reliant on single use plastic. It has become a part of every aspect of our lives and our dependence on it has caused significant problems. As useful as plastic might seem, a lot of people don’t think about plastics and the environment. It's a pollutant, it robs our planet of vital fossil fuels, it damages our environment, and it’s known to have negative effects on our health.

With all of this in mind, why are we still producing large volumes of single-use plastic each year? Why are more of us not making the switch and why aren’t more and more manufacturers seeking out feasible alternatives? Why is plastic bad for the environment? Once the facts become apparent, you’ll soon realise just how important it is for us to make a change.

Plastic Pollution on a Beach

How Much Single-Use Plastic Do We Use?

Plastic is cheap to produce and it’s versatile but that doesn’t make it a desirable throwaway material. The amount we use is alarming and these kinds of figures have to shock people into wanting and needing to make a change.

So what are single use plastics? They can take the form of plastic straws, carrier bags and plastic bottles among many other things. Each year, 381 million tonnes of plastic is wasted globally and half of that is made up of single-use plastic. That sounds quite bad, but it’s ok if we recycle, right? Ask yourself, how much plastic is recycled? What if you then find out that only 9% has ever been recycled? We all have to wonder where the other 170 million tonnes go each year. A Landfill dump? If that’s the case, how does 450 years sound, it’s a long time. It’s also the answer to “how long does it take for a plastic bottle to decompose?”…

When we break this down and specifically focus on single-use plastic bottles, the figures are absolutely staggering. Do you ever wonder how many plastic bottles are produced each year? Around the world, a million single-use plastic bottles are purchased each minute and currently, this is not going to slow down any time soon. What this means is that we are now purchasing just short of 500 billion single-use bottles every year. If we work that out per person, it means that every single person around the world is using around 62 single-use bottles per year or just over one per week.

A Collection of Plastic Bottles

The Health Implications of Using Single-Use Plastic

Many of us might not consider the health risks that come from using single-use plastic bottles. After all, drinking from them seems pretty harmless but it’s time to consider the lifecycle of plastic.

Plastic particles and the chemicals involved in making and disposing of plastic can cause harm to our health. Along with this, there are several stages associated with the lifecycle of plastic and it follows this general process:

The extraction and transportation of using fossil fuels cause the release of toxic substances into the atmosphere and water. These substances can cause an array of health problems such as cancer, reproductive problems and impairment of the immune system.

Plastic Pollution in a Landfill

The process also involves refining fossil fuels and again, the plastic resins and additives release carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substances into the air and again, this can cause health issues. The plastic products are then used by humans and this is where we can ingest or inhale microplastic particles as well as a huge range of toxic substances.

For that small percentage of single-use plastic that does get recycled, in particular, waste-to-energy incineration, further toxic substances are released and this can include acid gases, mercury and lead and these can all find their way into the air, soil and water, causing both direct and indirect health risks.

In instances where plastic is not recycled, then plastic that is left exposed to the elements will slowly degrade over hundreds of years but throughout this process, it will release plastic into the environment and into our bodies. Finally, this plastic will find its way into food chains through the soil, the sea and water, all of which leads to human exposure.

Toxic Pollution from Plastic Production

The Environmental Impact of Single-Use Plastic

Single-use plastic has a significant impact on climate change and our environment. Plastic is made from materials such as ethylene and propylene and is made from fossil fuels. Petroleum production makes up around 4% of the plastic-making process and around another 4% is burned during the process of refining. This is just scratching the surface because while the process of making plastic contributes to global warming, it’s what happens to the waste and how that contributes that is truly shocking.

Around 8 million tonnes of plastic finds its way into our oceans and this is likely to double by 2030. With 500 billion single use plastic bottles sold per year, how many of these plastic bottles are in the sea? As the plastic floats around on the ocean, the sunlight and heat cause the plastic to release greenhouse gases. As the plastic breaks down, more methane and ethylene are released and this speeds up the rate of climate change. This is an ongoing cycle and so, the more single-use bottles that are purchased then the more plastic bottles pollution increases and find their way into the ocean, the longer this process occurs.

Plastic Pollution on a Beach

It’s impossible to ignore the impact that single-use plastic has on marine life. Sea Life such as Whales, Sea Lions and large fish have been found dead after choking on large pieces of plastic. Furthermore, smaller particles that are known as microplastics have been found in the Mariana Trench, which is the deepest part of the ocean. So, not only is plastic smothering and choking marine animals but they are also ingesting microplastics and they have been found in the fish that we eat as well as in the plankton in the ocean. If you’re wondering why plankton gets a mention then that is responsible for removing carbon dioxide from the air and the water. When they are incapable of doing this, it means that more carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, ultimately leading to further global warming.

What Does All of This Mean?

That small, single-use plastic bottle might seem harmless but break it down and the process involved in making those bottles as well as disposing of them or allowing them to enter our environment can have devastating effects. Our health is impacted at almost every stage of the process. Not only are we impacted directly but also indirectly and that has to make us wonder whether we should continue manufacturing or purchasing them? After all, tap water is just as healthy for us. There’s a simple answer to some common questions, how to reduce plastic use? How can I reduce plastic bottle pollution? We can each purchase a reusable stainless steel water bottle, what’s the point in relying on single-use plastic bottles when they are nothing more than a significant problem for humans and our planet?

A Reusable Stainless Steel Water Bottle from Proworks