plastic bottles amongst other trash wased up on a beach

Why is Single-Use Plastic Bad for the Environment?

Well, the answer isn’t too terribly different from why plastic in general is bad for the environment.

Like most other plastics, single-use plastic is bad for the environment for a number of reasons, including being toxic to any species that accidentally consumes it, frequently ending up in the ocean which leads to the destruction of coral reefs and other sea life, and because the length of time it takes to fully break down – if it even does – is so unknown it’s like the 8th wonder of the world.

If you’ve seen a documentary or two, you know this list goes on and on.

The only real difference is the rate at which we use single-use plastics as opposed to plastics intended for longer term use. For example, a plastic vase may see many different flowers living inside it until it is eventually discarded while a single-use spoon is used once for approximately 5 to 15 minutes before being thrown out.

What is Single-Use Plastic?

Plastic fork and knife with napkin sit on a table.

Single-use plastic is disposable plastic manufactured for one-time use. Single-use plastic is composed of a nearly indestructible polymer that can last up to decades, if not hundreds of years, after breaking down into microplastic.

High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET), Polypropylene (PP), Polystyrene (PS), and Expandable Polystyrene (EPS) are the type of polymers used in the production of single-use plastic.

Scientists believe a plastic bottle made out of PET or HDPE requires approximately 450 years before it decomposes in a landfill. Of course, this hypothesis has never reached its conclusion since plastic was invented in 1862 by Alexander Parkes (less than 450 years ago).

The world produces around 380 million tons of plastic every year, 50% of which is single-use plastic with a useful life of less than 15 minutes on average.

Of that 380 million, more than 10 million tons get dumped in the ocean every single year. That’s 250,000 trucks full of plastic. No wonder our marine life is dying in abundance because of plastic debris that humans cast out.

One of the original benefits of plastic was its potential to alleviate stress on the natural world to provide for human needs, as it enabled us to create our own synthetic versions of natural resources like wood, bones, tusks, and shells. But plastic has met and far surpassed this purpose. “How and when should we use it?” are the questions we must discuss!

What are Some Common Single-Use Plastic Items?

Plastic grocery bags full of groceries sit on a table.

Single-use plastics are ubiquitous in our society, with many appearing in our lives almost daily. Those include:

  • plastic bottles
  • plastic lids on coffee cups
  • plastic shopping bags
  • takeout containers
  • plastic food packaging
  • plastic cutlery
  • plastic wrap for packaging and customer goods
  • plastic cups
  • plastic condiment pouches
  • plastic straws

There are around 128 million households in the United States. On average an American family takes home almost 1,500 plastic shopping bags a year. If we can cut that use to half, we can make a significant dent in one single-use waste stream.

Can Single-Use Plastic be Recycled?

Assorted plastics overflowing from a trash bin.

The world has produced more plastic in the last decade than in the entire 20th century, and 50% of it is single-use plastic. This begs the question: can single-use plastic be recycled?

Thanks to ever-advancing technology, the scientific answer is yes, but the truth of how we operate is much more layered than “reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Each year, more than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable items are collected by sanitaiton services in the U.S. After collecting the waste, they send it off to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) or transfer station for sorting. After the initial sort, these materials are further distributed to other facilities until they finally reach either a landfill or a factory.

The recycling process for single-use waste begins with categorization based on color, type of item, and number inside the triangle symbol on the package. Every plastic that can be recycled goes through a different process of recycling accordingly.

Sounds like that shouldn’t be a problem, right? According to the United States, from 1950 to 2015 only 9 percent of all plastic waste has ever been recycled. The rest of the 91 percent ends up in landfills or becomes a life threat to marine animals.

Why Don’t We Recycle all Single Use Plastics?

plastic waste lays on a trail in a forest

Single use cutlery, straws, and grocery bags are typically not accepted by most curbside pick-up programs due to the fact that they get stuck in and jam the sorting machines.

Most grocery stores have a plastic bag return, but the unfortunate truth is that most of that ends up getting tossed in landfills or shipped to other countries simply because making more is easier and cheaper sorting, breaking down, and reforming bags that have already been used.

Previously, America sold plastic waste to China so it could be made into more products. Unfortunately rumor has it that they don’t want our plastic anymore due to tariffs and corporations that constantly “need” to make cuts on cost, so many different types of plastics have been synthesized.

We are no longer dealing with your father’s plastic. Most of today’s plastics cannot be recycled as easily or cost efficiently. This is largely due to the cost of shipping the plastic, and the fact that most bales ending up “contaminated” with non-recyclable plastics mixed in, rendering them useless for reproduction.

These materials are often illegally dumped in impoverished areas or the ocean since, again, it’s much cheaper for manufacturers to just make more plastic. Remember, plastic comes from oil. They’re an honest, free-market industry that has never been in our government’s pocket, right..?

Why is Single-Use Plastic bad for the environment?

Plastic bottle and plastics bag bales sit on top each other.

Greenhouse gas emission, physical impact on marine life, and littering our landscape are a few of the innumerable problems plastic causes to the environment in general.

Single-use plastics do the same thing, just more insidiously. One ketchup packet here and one spork there being used and then tossed by millions of people every day really ads up.

Single-use plastic products cost little to almost nothing to produce, and Their lightweight, convenient properties have made them commercially successful. From manufacturing to use, single-use plastic causes severe destruction to earth at an unmatchable rate.

The authors of the report Plastic & Climate: The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet wrote that there were 9.5 – 10.5 Million metric tons of Co2 emission from fossil fuel, alone by the USA. A household that uses 250 grocery bags per year is alone responsible for 8.25 kilograms of CO2 in the atmosphere. As our climate changes, the planet grows hot. The plastic breaks down into more methane and ethylene, which further increases the rate of climate change.


The presence of plastic in the environment is exceedingly high. Researchers have proved that we consume microplastic particles through the water, air, and food we consume.

Sounds unreal? Recall the last meal you had – was there a presence of salt? Well, salt comes from the ocean, which possesses trillions of tiny microplastic particles.

Why is Single-Use Plastic Bad for the Oceans?

A turtle is swimming in the ocean with plastic bags around them.

The oceans are home to over a million different plants and animals, from micro plants to the Blue Whale, the largest animal to live on earth.

It’s also a primary food provider for 3.5 billion people. Fishing and Aquaculture employs 10-12 percent of the world population. Oceans are the food security and financial stability of millions of families across the earth.

Dr. Jennifer Lavers devoted her life to studying the plight of seabirds. She examines them when they end up on the beach, sad and lifeless. And as unfortunate as it may sound, the record is 276 pieces of plastic found inside the stomach of a 90-day-old chick. This plastic waste was 15% of the total mass of that seabird.

Lavers says, “That’ll be equivalent to a human having around six to eight kilos (8-18lbs) of plastic in the stomach.” 90% of seabirds have swallowed plastic at some time in their lives.

100 million marine animals die due to plastic by either ingesting a piece or by being entangled by it. The situation is miserable for sea animals just as much as their avian counterparts.

“As a Pacific Islander, I know the Oceans are in trouble. The authoritative prediction shows that by the year 2050, there will be just as much plastic as there is fish in the ocean by weight,” said Mr. Peter Thomas, the former President of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

5 Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic

Person holding a re-useable produce bag full of oranges.

There are eco-friendly and sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic that have been with us since before plastic took over. Some of these are:

Single-Use ItemTry This Instead
plastic shopping bagreusable cotton or jute bag, shopping basket
plastic cutlerystainless steel or bamboo cutlery, chopsticks
plastic strawsstraws made of bamboo, stainless steel, paper, reusable silicone, rice, pasta (really!), or avocado pits; go straw free if/when you can
mylar message balloonspaper lanterns, real flowers with a card
coffee to go with plastic lidstainless steel, aluminum, or glass to go mug; ask for coffee with no lid when possible

What Can We Do?

uncle sam wearing a gas mask while holding a sign that reads epa regulations

Recycling campaigns tell us core issues are in accountability and education. If everyone can understand how washing the plastic before disposing of it in categorized waste bins will prevent plastic from contamination, recycling will become practical.

Those commercials that constantly tell us it’s our duty thus making it feel like our fault are dime a dozen.

And when we commit to making these lifestyle changes to help better our planet, it can be frustrating at times to feel like we’re in it alone. We “do our part” but it feels like it will never make a difference if others aren’t taking waste reduction seriously.

But it’s not just about curbing our individual plastic use – corporations are perpetuating the cycle of extreme plastic use, and our government policies facilitate them. The reality is the changes need to be made on the government level not the consumer.

There are countries like South Korea, Switzerland, Austria, Japan, Germany, and Taiwan. They have done a significant bit in making recycling possible. Topping the chart is a tiny village Kamikatsu of Japan, with 1500 Residents with a zero-waste goal by this year. They sort their trash into 34 categories. which proves that we have away, but we need awareness and rules to walk on the way

Many states like California are banning plastic bags while asking you to bring your own and charging a 10 cent fee for each paper bag used. Let me tell you, I cashiered at a retail store when this change happened. Many people weren’t happy about this change. I personally got yelled at for this change like it was my own conspiracy to take their money.

So the real problem lies in lack of education and policy. Much deeper than the candy-coated response we get from most sources. It’s an uphill battle to combat the billions of dollars oil industries have funneled into advertisements to lead you to believe plastic isn’t a problem, but knowledge is power.

If we all felt a little more outraged about the truth behind the veil, we can drive policy change. By the end of the day politicians work for the people; if enough people care and voice their concern, changes can happen.


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