Not All Single-Use Plastics Are Created Equal

Plastic pollution is one of the world’s most serious environmental challenges today. This focus on banning, taxing and recycling single-use plastic packaging is short-sighted - not because plastic packaging is not a problem; it is indeed a huge problem, accounting for 40 percent of all plastic waste.

June 27, 2023

6 Min Read
plastic wrappers
Tim Gainey / Alamy Stock Photo

Daphna Nissenbaum, CEO of TIPA

Plastic pollution is one of the world’s most serious environmental challenges today. 

Plastics, especially the microplastic particles that result from plastic breaking down over time, are polluting land and waterways around the world, killing millions of animals each year and making their way into drinking water and posing a growing threat to human health. The problem is set to get worse: plastic production is on track to double by 2050, and plastic waste will triple by 2060.

On a positive note, there are many initiatives in the U.S. and globally that aim to reduce plastic waste, and the United Nations, which is in the process of creating an international plastic treaty, believes that plastic pollution can be reduced by 80 percent by 2040. However, the challenge with many programs, regulations and educational campaigns to reduce plastic is that they focus heavily on reducing single-use plastic through bans and taxes, or by recycling.

This focus on banning, taxing and recycling single-use plastic packaging is short-sighted - not because plastic packaging is not a problem; it is indeed a huge problem, accounting for 40 percent of all plastic waste. But these solutions are not sufficient, and they often view all single-use plastic packaging as equally bad. What we really need is to create a system that supports sustainable alternative plastics, including compostables—which do indeed exist today— and treat those products differently. This includes encouraging infrastructure, such as industrial composting facilities, that provide a true circular economy for these innovative plastics without taking a harsh toll on the environment and human health. This approach is in fact key to the success of the UN’s new roadmap to reduce plastic.

Single-use plastic packaging has emerged as an essential product and economic-driver in today’s world. It keeps food safe, clean and fresh; protects life-saving medications and surgical tools and plays a huge role in the growing online shopping sector. Reducing our use of this material is much easier said than done. And in cases where there are efforts to ban or reduce single-use plastic via taxing or other laws, they are mainly focused on consumers, with stores or localities banning or charging money for plastic shopping bags or packaging for take-out food. In other words, these efforts are not having an effect on the massive amounts of plastic used in online shopping, food and fashion retailers and other supply chains. This plastic is disposed of before it even reaches clients or end consumers. In addition, research shows that consumers simply buy additional plastic bags to replace the ones that were once provided free at grocery and other stores, making many bans ineffective at reducing overall plastic waste.

Recycling is also clearly not working. While rates of people recycling and the number of recycling programs have ballooned during the last three decades, plastic waste has only gotten worse. Only about 9 percent of plastic waste globally is actually recycled, even as consumers toss much more into recycling bins. Flexible plastic packaging, including film and bags are especially difficult to recycle because they are either contaminated with food or other debris or are made of multiple materials, which makes the whole recycling process simply not worthwhile economically.

Using recycled plastic to make packaging and bags also comes with significant drawbacks, including recent evidence that recycled plastic is more toxic, and that the recycling process sends microplastics into the environment, which also end up in our bodies, and even in human breast milk. But despite this, many initiatives to ban, tax or reduce plastic packaging make exemptions for items that contain at least some recycled plastic. While the intention behind such exemptions is good, in reality these items are also damaging to the environment.

In order to actually reduce the impact of plastic on the environment and human health, we need to move away from a mindset of banning, recycling and taxing plastic, and think toward new innovative types of packaging. One promising solution that is gaining more attention, and was even cited in the United Nations proposed road map to reduce plastic waste, is compostable packaging as a way to re-orient. The UN suggests that up to 17 percent of all plastic can be substituted with compostable plastics or other compostable materials. When compostable items, including packaging, are placed in a home or industrial composter, they break down into organic matter. In true circular fashion, this resulting organic matter, aka compost, can be used in backyard gardens and agricultural fields. 

Compostable packaging offers many of the important benefits of traditional plastic packaging, including an ability to keep products fresh and clean, and transparency so that consumers can see the goods they are buying. But this type of plastic is clearly different, as it becomes waste that nourishes rather than pollutes the planet: use of compost on fields is key to mitigating climate change and making sure the food supply is adequate for a growing population.  

As compostable plastic becomes more popular, regulators, waste management professionals and community leaders need to recognize this difference. Compostable plastic bags and other packaging should not be taxed or banned, as often happens, simply for being a single-use plastic product. This type of plastic is clearly in another category: single-use - but with an environmental end-of-life. To make sure this compostable plastic is disposed of properly, the world needs more composting facilities that accept these materials, and easy and convenient access to them, including curbside pickup, like we have seen recently in cities like New York and Los Angeles. For consumers and businesses, composting packaging should be just as simple as tossing packaging into a recycling bin.

Plastic has never posed such a danger to our future as it does today and it’s only getting worse. To counter this, while still allowing for businesses and consumers to thrive, we need to think beyond bans and recycling when it comes to single-use plastics. With the right innovative attitude and policies, compostable plastic can not only protect our food, clothing and medical supplies, but it can protect the planet. It is time for a new era of single-use plastics.

Author Bio: Daphna Nissenbaum is the CEO of TIPA.



Editor's Note: Submit your commentary and opinion pieces to Stefanie Valentic, Editor in Chief, at [email protected]

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