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The Lifespan of Single-Use Plastic

Updated: Mar 3


Beyond Disposal: The Ongoing Impact of Single-Use Plastic

From the packaging used to store food, to clothing and building materials, plastic is everywhere–polluting our land, oceans, and ecosystems at an alarming rate. It’s creating constant problems that need urgent attention.


Unfortunately, plastic is difficult to avoid. It’s abundant and deeply integrated into our daily lives. Especially through the use of single-use plastics which is so pervasive that most people don’t go a single day without it. Before a plastic product is even used, it has already harmed the environment through production and manufacturing processes, and it causes issues long after you toss it away. So let’s dive into the lifespan of single-use plastic and focus on just a few of the environmental determinants the processes cause.


How Plastic is Produced

The negative environmental impacts of plastic start at the beginning during the manufacturing stage of plastic production. The current methods pose environmental risks like increased air, water, and land pollution [5]. Harvesting the materials needed to make plastic releases CO2 into our atmosphere which emits greenhouse gasses, pollution in our atmosphere, and into the ozone layer [8].


Plastic can be made of either bio-based or synthetic materials. Bio-based plastic is typically made from things like starch, vegetable oils, carbohydrates, and other naturally occurring substances; however, most of the plastics we know and use are synthetic, meaning they are extracted from fossil fuels (or non-renewable energy sources) such as crude oil, coal, and natural gases [2]. This is usually done through hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, which is a process that releases gas and oil by shooting a combination of water and chemicals to break rock formations. Fracking can lead to a lot of negative repercussions for the environment and humans, especially if a leakage occurs [4].


After their extraction, the oil and gas are transferred to refineries through pipes where they are processed and undergo a process called "cracking". Cracking converts the oil into ethylene gas, which is then used to create polymers that make polyethylene. Polyethylene can then be molded into various shapes, such as laundry detergent jugs or plastic bags [6]. So the next time you pick up your laundry detergent jug, think about the process it underwent to be there.


The Lifespan of Single-Use Plastic

Every single-use plastic item has a different usage time. For example: an average plastic bag is only used for ten to fifteen minutes—typically the time it takes to get groceries from the store to your home—before it is discarded in some way. However, after it’s disposed of a plastic bag can take 10-20 years to degrade in the environment or landfill while a water bottle can take up to 450 years.


People either take their discarded plastic products to a curbside recycling bin, throw them away in the garbage, or litter them onto the street to become an eye-sore for passersby [4]. Eventually, if given the time to break down, plastic breaks down to become microplastics. These microplastics seep into the environment and waterways finding their way into the stomachs of marine life and other creatures that humans end up eating. Microplastics are so pervasive they’ve recently been found in mother’s breast milk and the human heart. Plastic is everywhere. Even when you don’t realize it.


Is Recycling Plastic the Solution: The 10% Reality

Recycling Plastic Products

Recycling is one of the few methods available to get rid of plastic after its final use; however, it is not a comprehensive solution to ending the plastic waste crisis. While recycling is helpful, it presents organizational challenges, requires significant energy, and might unintentionally promote continued plastic consumption because people feel like when they recycle, they aren’t harming the environment, when in fact, that isn’t true. Why? Because not all plastic is recyclable and the reliability of recycling varies drastically from state to state, and even down to municipality. Only 10% of plastic is recycled. Moreover, plastics have limitations in their recyclability—repeated recycling leads to lower-quality plastic that eventually becomes non-recyclable [3]. Learn more about recycling plastic here. To find help with which plastics you can and cannot recycle, use this resource: What Can I Recycle?

Where 90% of Plastic Ends Up

We’ve all seen the images of plastic infiltrating our oceans– the turtle with the straw up its nose, the fish trapped in a six-pack ring, or birds with mouthfuls of plastic bags. We’ve seen these photos because it's a huge problem, and our plastic does end up in the ocean. Right now, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch currently has 79,000 metric tons which is almost incomprehensible. The worst part? Plastic doesn’t just end up in our oceans, plastic ends up in landfills and the incinerator too.


Plastic Our Oceans

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
Forbes.com

In the ocean, there are a huge number of plastic pieces—about 5.25 trillion. Out of all that plastic, 269,000 tons are floating on the surface of the water. In the deep sea, there are around four billion tiny plastic pieces called microfibers in each square kilometer [7]. The ocean is full of plastic pollution that wreaks havoc on marine life and ecosystems [6]—not to mention the damage that microplastics cause (read more in our blog on microplastics in the ocean).


Plastic—as it floats, sinks, or destroys a habitat—can be harmful to animals, especially when they get stuck in it, or digest it which can cause loss of limbs, choking, clogging their bowels, or starvation because they think they are full when really their stomachs are just full of undigested plastic [1].


As the plastic moves into the ocean through rivers and streams, it can create such a massive buildup that it actually creates a dam. This hinders the natural cycle and movement of our waterways. When water stagnates, it becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other disease carrying bugs.


Plastic Sent to Landfills

Landfill filled with single-use plastic

In the landfill, plastic can sit for hundreds of years and during this process, the plastic can leak toxins and contaminants into our soil and groundwater [6]. Contaminated soil and groundwater are problematic to human health, as well as to animals and ecosystems.


Plastic Sent to Incinerators

When plastic is incinerated, it releases carbon dioxide and mercury, both which can be toxic, into our environment [6]. Studies have shown that some of the chemicals released from burning plastic may even produce a higher likelihood of cancer. If plastic bags or containers used for agriculture have pesticides or harmful substances on them, those substances can also be released into the air when burned, or chemicals like chlorine may stick to plants (trees, grass, flowers) and find their way into the food web [9].


As you can see, wherever it ends up, plastic is detrimental and causes long-term issues that are not worth the fifteen minutes of usage it typically takes for our convenience.


The Path to Reducing Single-Use Plastic

As you can see, plastic doesn't start and finish when we pick it up and end when we toss it away—its impact goes far beyond that. What we often use for convenience lasts generations on our planet, harming ecosystems, animals, and even humans.


But it isn’t all doom and gloom. You can easily begin to reduce your plastic consumption throughout the day. Bring a reusable shopping bag, use a reusable coffee cup, buy detergent sheets, or participate in a BYOC (bring your own container) where you can refill your soaps over and over again. Every single one of these simple choices will have a positive effect on our environment and overall human health. Check out our blog Is a Plastic-free Life Possible.


If you want to get even more serious about reducing your plastic consumption, participate in public clean-up events, support brands that are plastic-free or waste-conscious, and look into politics revolving around protecting our environment. By choosing reusable instead of single-use, we can help reduce this plastic issue one product at a time. Visit Plastic Detox for a wide range of plastic-free products.


 

Citations:

[2] Baheti, P. (n.d.). How Is Plastic Made? A Simple Step-By-Step Explanation. British Plastics Federation. https://www.bpf.co.uk/plastipedia/how-is-plastic-made.aspx#:~:text=Plastic%20can%20either%20be%20’synthetic,bacteria%20and%20other%20biological%20substances

[3] Brown, N. (2021, April 10). The Life Cycle of Plastics. Debris-Free Oceans. https://debrisfreeoceans.org/the-life-cycle-of-plastics

[4] Huun, K. (2022, February 23). Issues with Plastic Bags & the Ripple Effect. University of Colorado Environmental Center. https://www.colorado.edu/ecenter/2022/02/23/issues-plastic-bags-ripple-effect

[5] Lewis, Y., Gower, A., & Notten, P. (2021). Single-use plastic tableware and its alternatives. Life Cycle Initiative. https://lifecycleinitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/UNEP-D001-Tableware-Report_Lowres.pdf

[7] Parker, L. (2022, June 2). Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Questions Remain. National Geographic. https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/ocean-trash-525-trillion-pieces-and-counting-big-questions-remain/

[8] Plastic pollution: The Long Lasting Problem. OceanCare. (n.d.). https://www.oceancare.org/en/marine-conservation/plastic-pollution/

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