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6 of the Biggest Contributors to Plastic Pollution: Single-use Plastics to Avoid

Updated: Feb 8


Plastic Pollution Rice and Co Plastic Alternatives

Of the millions of tons of plastic produced each year, only about 10% of it is recycled [1]. Otherwise discarded as waste in natural environments, plastics never completely decompose; instead, they break down into smaller microplastics which continue to harm their surrounding ecosystem, eventually making their way into our food and water. Out of those millions of tons of plastic, a large bulk originates from single-use items—a type of product that is thankfully easier to eliminate from daily use than others with the many incredible alternatives available. Here, we’ve provided a list of specific single-use plastic items known for contributing the most to plastic pollution and replaced each of them with eco-friendly alternative products.


Plastic Pollutant vs. Plastic-Free Alternative

1. Plastic beverage bottles (and the caps/bottle lids)

Plastic bottles along with their caps contribute to over 14% of the pollution in our world [2]. Every minute, people use over one million plastic bottles [3]. In the U.S. alone, consumers buy an annual estimate of 50 billion plastic water bottles—which is about a dozen bottles monthly for each individual that lives in America [4][5].


With the statistics above, one reusable water bottle can eliminate the need for about 150 plastic bottles yearly [5]. Our recommendation is that you avoid reusable water bottles made with plastic; instead, try out stainless steel or glass for a reliable alternative. Lastly, make sure to look into the brand/product of the bottle when purchasing, because not all sustainable products are created equally.


2. Plastic bags, including plastic produce bags for fruits and veggies

Did you know that over 100 billion plastic bags are dumped every year in the U.S.? This drastic statistic equates to “dumping nearly 12 million barrels of crude oil” [5]. Not to mention that worldwide, a whopping annual sum of “five trillion plastic bags are used” [3]. This can include (but not limited to) the following: plastic grocery bags, produce bags, packaging bags, food bags, garbage bags, freezer bags, and so much more.


Alternatives: Option 1 - Reusable shopping/produce bags

This is a simple fix. Reusable bags can be bought, received as a gift, or can be any old bag you may have lying around. Side note: tote bags make for great grocery bags—just don’t forget to wash them every so often. Overall, by eliminating the use of plastic bags and making the transition to reusable ones, we can cut back on a lot of unnecessary plastic waste caused by the convenience of using a plastic bag for 10-20 minutes in a store where it is rarely used again [6].


Option 2 - Mesh bags

  • Perfect for produce

  • Benefits: Plastic-free, biodegradable, compostable, reusable, made with organic cotton, available in different sizes, and easy to clean



Option 3 - Bee’s wrap snack bags

  • Great for snacks and storage

  • Benefits: Reusable/washable, plastic-free, silicone-free, biodegradable, compostable, and come in fun designs!

  • Comparison to plastic bags: lasts for up to a year and can be composted or used as fire kindling (there are also vegan options if bee-byproducts aren’t your style)



3. Plastic straws, plastic stirrers, and cups

About 500 million straws are used daily by people living in the U.S. alone [7]. Straws are a big problem because they are not large enough to easily recycle [8] and small enough to make their way into our environment (and animals) easily. On top of that, the pollution of plastic cups in the world is over 500 billion cups annually, which is nearly 1.5 billion plastic cups daily: “Americans alone throw away around 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups every year” [5]. These are all big numbers that can be a bit difficult to conceptualize; however, a quick search of “plastic pollution” in images sure puts the problem into perspective. To prevent adding to the problem, look into the simple alternative below.


For more information on how to store food without plastic, check out this blog: What Can I Used Instead of Plastic Wrap: 5 Environmentally Friendly Plastic Alternatives


Alternative: Stainless Steel Straws

  • Benefits: Plastic-free, reusable, dishwasher-safe, non-toxic, sustainable, recycled packaging

  • Comparison to plastic straws: made with food-grade stainless steel so they are durable and reusable. Comes with a brush cleaner for easy cleaning but is also dishwasher-safe. Does not create microplastics like a plastic straw does after being exposed to the environment. Does not add to plastic pollution like a plastic straw does



4. Cigarette butts

Trillions of cigarette butts pollute our world annually, which is problematic as they are not compostable due to the microplastic fibers in their filters. Their pollution also leaches chemicals and toxins into our environment [9]. While we don't have an good alternative to this pollutant, you are able to recycle these through sites like Terracycle.


5. Takeout containers, plastic containers, and lids

“Takeout” is advertised as an easy way to get food with minimal effort, and worldwide, it is becoming a more and more popular option for consumers (especially after the 2020 pandemic), which has skyrocketed the pollution created by plastic takeout containers. According to a study conducted by sustainable industrial researchers, Alejandro Gallego-Schmid, Joan Manuel F. Mendoza, and Adisa Azapagic, “Single-use containers used for takeaway food represent a significant source of waste and environmental impacts due to their low recyclability” [10]. This means that takeout containers either end up in landfill or as pollution. Carmen Morales-Caselles, lead researcher on a 2021 global classification of ocean litter, shared that plastic waste accounted for roughly “80%” of the total “12 [million] data points from 36 databases across the planet” surveyed for the study; of this 80%, the majority of the plastic waste took the form of single-use takeout items such as bags, wrappers, containers, straws, and cutlery [11]. It is important that we limit our use of single-use plastic items in our everyday lives. A little change really can go a long way, and using plastic alternatives is not only better for the environment and animals but also better for ourselves by limiting our plastic exposure—and exposure to microplastic seepage.


Alternatives: Stainless Steel Food containers

  • Great for snacks, lunches, leftovers, storage, and picnics!

  • Benefits: Plastic-free, toxin-free, made of food-grade stainless steel, and can be used in the freezer, oven, and dishwasher

  • Comparison to plastic containers: will not contaminate your food with microplastics, will not leave any metallic taste, and long-lasting


6. Single-use plastic utensils and cutlery

Plastic utensils are used by most fast food establishments creating waste almost instantly. Even when these items are made with plastic that can normally be recycled, most recycling centers wont accept them. This is due to their light weight and slender size making them challenging to process in machinery.


Alternative: Bamboo cutlery or wooden cutlery

  • Benefits of bamboo or wooden cutlery: plastic-free, organic, zero waste, and they are compostable

  • Comparison to single-use cutlery: set includes a reusable straw and straw cleaner. Unlike plastic cutlery, these alternatives do not contribute to plastic waste, they are reusable and durable, guilt-free, and are very charming and classy designs



Other steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution

Take a step away from single-use items and branch out to more reusable products. Reusable (especially plastic-free) products are game changers and can make a world of difference in both the quality of the item as well as the carbon footprint you leave behind. Another way to help out is by joining beach/nature clean-ups if you feel inclined, or picking up the litter you see as you live out your daily life and tossing it in an appropriate bin. It may seem gross or off-putting, but removing that one piece of pollution can do a lot—maybe even save the life of an animal or prevent the litter from ending up in our water supply. With plastic pollution continuing to grow more out of control, any actions taken to mitigate its presence can go a long way.


 

Works Cited


[1] Lindwall, C. (2020, January 09). Single-use plastics 101. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101?gclid=CjwKCAjwitShBhA6EiwAq3RqA0FXbmo3zXldlphp5bfRx7g14RyFdSeO6RXiu5lIY8aKBMbw1dY37RoCj_8QAvD_BwE#what

[2] Plastic Oceans International. (2021, July 21). Plastic pollution facts. Plastic Oceans International. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://plasticoceans.org/the-facts/

[3] United Nations Environment Programme. (n.d.). Beat Plastic Pollution. [Interactive Factsheet]. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution/#:~:text=Cigarette%20butts%20%E2%80%94%20whose%20filters%20contain,the%20next%20most%20common%20items

[4] Ruiz, A. (n.d.). 25 Plastic Waste Statistics That Will Shock You. The Roundup. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://theroundup.org/plastic-waste-statistics/

[5] Earth Day Network Staff. (2022, March 29). Fact Sheet: Single Use Plastics. Earth Day Network. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.earthday.org/fact-sheet-single-use-plastics/

[6] Fryling, C. (2019, November 06). The Life of a Plastic Bag. Elmwood Park Zoo. Retrieved April 19, 2023, from https://www.elmwoodparkzoo.org/the-life-of-a-plastic-bag/

[7] National Park Service (n.d.). The Be Straw Free Campaign. National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved April 19th, 2023, from https://www.nps.gov/articles/straw-free.htm

[8] 5 Gyres. (n.d.). Plastic Straws. 5 Gyres: Science to Solutions. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.5gyres.org/plastic-straws

[9] Root, T. (2019, August 09). Cigarette Butts are toxic plastic pollution. Should they be banned? National Geographic. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/cigarettes-story-of-plastic

[10] Gallego-Schmid, A., Mendoza, J. M. F., & Azapagic, A. (2018, November 24). Environmental impacts of takeaway food containers. Journal of Cleaner Production | Science Direct. Volume 211, 2019, Pages 417-427, ISSN 0959-6526, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2018.11.220. Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652618336230

[11] Carrington, D. (2021, June 10). Takeaway food and drink litter dominates ocean plastic, study shows. The Guardian. Retrieved April 18, 2023, from https://amp.theguardian.com/environment/2021/jun/10/takeaway-food-and-drink-litter-dominates-ocean-plastic-study-shows?__twitter_impression=true

[12] International Fund for Animal Welfare. (2021, July 12). How does plastic get into the ocean? International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). Retrieved April 17, 2023, from https://www.ifaw.org/journal/plastic-pollution-ocean?ms=UONDC230037102&gclid=Cj0KCQjw8e-gBhD0ARIsAJiDsaVQdzidGgzlTSBSi3Umn4XTVUbDYZi_oN4mD_eZxZ44K3A-bzTOprwaAl3fEALw_wcB


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