Single use plastics: A risk to our environment
The convenience that plastic provides comes at an alarming environmental expense, yet it has become an indispensable part of our modern life. Single-use plastics are plastics that are utilised for a short period before being discarded and this is one of the most widespread types of plastic pollution. In this article we examine the destructive effects single-use plastics has on the environment and the pressing need for reform the way we use, consume, and treat single use plastics.
Overwhelming consumption: The compounding effect of plastic pollution
Single-use plastics are everywhere, from plastic bags and straws to food packaging and beverage containers. Single-use plastics are made primarily from fossil fuels, and as we know, burning fossil fuels exacerbates climate change. Petroleum-based materials are extracted, refined, and processed into plastic items, which increases greenhouse gas emissions and depletes resources.
As per the United Nations, an estimated 400 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated annually per annum. Plastic production also releases hazardous chemicals due to the overt dependency on fossil fuel during the production phase and around 85% of single use plastics used for food and beverage containers end up in landfills or dumped in the environment. These waste materials build up in landfills, rivers, and oceans, posing a significant threat to wildlife, ecosystems, and public health as toxic substances can be found in the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe.
Marine life is particularly vulnerable to the hazards of single-use plastics. Birds feed plastic scraps to their young, marine creatures become caught in plastic waste, and sea turtles mistake plastic bags for jellyfish. Additionally, plastic litter harms crucial habitats and upends marine ecosystems, which has an impact on all levels of the food chain. Single-use plastics are a part of the damaging microplastic pollution issue. Plastic products decompose into minute particles that contaminate land, water supplies, and even the air we breathe. Microplastics have been discovered in seafood, tap water, marine life, and in far-off places like the Arctic. The vicious cycle and compounding effects of plastic production and associated pollution, and improper disposal can add to the problem of overflowing landfills. These items take up space and release dangerous chemicals into the environment for hundreds of years as they are not easily biodegradable.
Phasing out Single-use Plastic use toward sustainable future:
We can lessen our reliance on fossil fuels and cut back on carbon emissions by consuming less single-use plastics and using sustainable alternatives. The good news is that everyone can contribute to reducing their single use plastic use. This includes choosing eco-friendly substitutes include packaging that is compostable or biodegradable, as well as using reusable containers, utensils, and bags. This will reduce our dependency on single use plastics and minimise their impact on the environment. Often, the purchases we make have a plastic ‘choice’ to consider – is the item wrapped in plastic that is not recyclable? Is there an alternative option? Do we actually need a bag? Supporting programs that encourage recycling, trash management, and plastic-free lifestyles can also help bring about systemic change.
The alarming environmental repercussions of single-use plastics demand immediate action. Fortunately, governments across the globe are recognising the urgency of the issue and are taking steps to address it. New Zealand has demonstrated its commitment to start tackling plastic pollution by announcing a plastic phaseout of various types of plastics, especially soft-plastics and hard to recycle plastics as they interfere with the recycling systems and are occasionally used once before being disposed as waste. The embargo on soft-plastics aims to transition from hard-to recycle single use plastics and is a part of a wider ambition to make Aotearoa New Zealand a low emissions and low waste economy.
The phasing out plan by New Zealand government involves public consultation. The items that are easier to replace are being phased out sooner compared to the challenging items to replace. This plan accommodates business continuity by allowing time for the business community and the public to adjust by using the old stock, make changes to product lines, and scout for suitable alternatives. However, in cases where practical alternatives are available for some of the items, phasing out was immediate. For instance, businesses have moved from plastic spoons and containers to metal spoons or reusable containers, and similarly, non-plastic alternatives and easier to recycle plastics such as types 1, 2 and 5 have been used instead of PVC and polystyrene packaging. Other plastics in the phase out are plastic drink stirrers, cotton buds with plastic stems, produce bags, plates, bowls, and cutlery.
Going forward, bio-based, and compostable plastics have emerged as alternatives to some traditional plastics. Although these alternatives often need to be composted by a professional composting facility, it’s a start.
Overall New Zealand's phase-out and ban on single-use plastics is a breakthrough in the fight against plastic pollution. It highlights the value of group efforts and the demand for all-encompassing approaches to deal with this global issue. Let us draw inspiration from these initiatives and collaborate to replace single-use plastics in the future by adopting eco-friendly alternatives to preserve the environment for generations to come.