Single-use plastic is bad, single-use culture is worse

Zach Bright, Assistant Opinion Editor

When you’re craving something late at night and get food delivered straight to your door, chances are, you aren’t thinking about all the packaging that your food comes in. Aside from the meal itself, it probably looks something like this: plastic bag, plastic container, plastic utensils and often an exorbitant amount of napkins. After 10-15 minutes chowing down, you’re done, and everything goes in the trash. After several decades, you’re done — with life. The plastics? They’re here to stay, and that’s a problem.

The United Nations Environment Programme defines single-use plastics like your plastic fork or spoon as “items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.” These include plastic bags, bottles, straws, cups and cutlery. Relatively inexpensive to producers while fairly convenient to consumers, these plastics have become ubiquitous.

When recycled, their environmental impact may be negligible. But only 2 percent of global packaging waste actually gets effectively recycled. Of all 400 million tons of plastic produced globally each year, 36 percent comes from plastic packaging—the single-use material we’re talking about. In the United States, one-tenth of discarded items come from single-use plastics.

But when it comes to discussing these products, consumers bear the brunt of the blame. Corporations have made these single-use plastics a crutch in people’s lives. Alternatives designed for a single use aren’t the answer. We need to change how we think about packaging.

With the existential threat of the climate crisis looming, people have decided that instead of plastics, alternative single-use items are the best way to go. Instead of plastic straws and bags, enter paper.

While these products don’t take as long as plastics to degrade, they’re still single-use. They require raw materials and energy to produce, almost always result in greenhouse gas emissions and eventually contribute to landfills at the end of their short, single-use lives.

Eco-ventures have forged a more creative, research-oriented route, with businesses like Ooho, an alternative to water bottles that holds water in brown algae and calcium chloride mixture instead of the polyethylene terephthalate that most plastic bottles are made of.

But while such innovations might be promising down the line, single-use plastics and items can and should be dealt with immediately, like the climate crisis to which they contribute. And it’s possible. Their multi-use counterparts already exist and have for quite some time, and you probably know what they are. Rather than use a plastic fork, maybe just use the actual one you stole from Allison Dining Hall.

Some might argue that single-use plastics and products serve a purpose. In the medical field, plastics can be helpful in preventing infection, particularly in areas where sanitary conditions aren’t always guaranteed. But this makes up a sliver of the single-use plastics we’re talking about, the ones that are creating the patches of garbage floating in the ocean.

Now obviously, you aren’t going to bring a Hydro Flask with you on your Friday nights out. But if you get a drink, keeping that cup for the whole night instead of just a couple of minutes is a first step in the right direction. But these small steps in our own daily lives must be coupled with change at a higher level.

Moving forward, we must implement policy-centered solutions. Earlier in March, the European Parliament approved a single-use plastics ban on by 2021. This bold change is ideal, but at the very least, we should tax single-use plastic manufacturers at a higher rate.

The United States is behind. Here, a single-use plastic ban should be considered at a federal level, with a transitional period and voluntary reduction strategies so that regions less equipped have the time and resources to adapt. Let’s put a dent in the climate crisis and make Greta Thunberg happy.

Zach Bright is a Medill Sophomore. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.