The Dummies' Guide to Single Use Plastics
EVERYTHING ABOUT SINGLE-USE PLASTICS THAT YOU WERE TOO EMBARRASSED TO ASK.
When it comes to food packaging, it’s easy to be seduced by promises of all things natural, recyclable, compostable, biodegradable. But what do these things actually mean?
I’ll be honest. When we first started on our sustainability journey, we were absolutely clueless. Now, Nic and I fancy ourselves as pretty intelligent adults; we read the news everyday, have meaningful and interesting conversations about Adult Stuff, and are generally quite “switched on”. For all intents and purposes, we considered ourselves smart, engaged members of society.
Plastic? Bad, duh! Recycling? Good! Say no to straws. Bring your own bags. Common sense, right?
Well, yes. It’s just that when it came to the nitty gritty of it – we drew blanks. “Why are greenhouse gasses bad?” Nic asked me shyly. Objectively, we knew they were bad. Something about global warming. But why? I stared back blankly.
To everyone who remembers what they learnt in high school science, props to you. To everyone else, welcome to our safe space. It’s better late than never.
The landscape of environmental information is vast, and we’re still learning new things everyday. But at the risk of exposing ourselves, we’re going to share with you our bible on everything plastic, which includes things that we’ve only just learnt as tertiary educated adults in our mid twenties.
Nic and I were doing some grocery shopping one night. A flash of green on a label caught my eye. “Eco-friendly?” I read, picking up the plastic pouch from the shelf. “Heck, that sounds good to me!”
What wasn’t good was the fact that 91% of the world’s plastic isn’t recycled, and even when it is recycled, it has a lifespan of uses before it’s thrown into landfill. And once in landfill, it takes more than 400 years to degrade fully. Not exactly the best for the environment.
I didn’t know that. It made me feel good to purchase something that was “eco-friendly”, like I was a better citizen of the world for making that purchase. I later found out that this marketing tactic is called greenwashing.
“It’s eco-friendly, just trust us!” Companies continually use greenwashing as a marketing tactic to appear more eco-friendly, while taking no meaningful actions to actually be eco-friendly.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.
Basically, if a company invests more money into advertising how their product is super “eco-friendly” instead of initiatives to actually make their product more eco-friendly, that’s greenwashing.
96% of consumers feel that their own actions can make a difference in the world (Futura, 2018), and companies deceive them into purchasing products that don’t actually help as much as they say they do.
Greenwashing is a big problem because it takes up valuable space in the fight against important environmental issues, like plastic pollution, climate change, and more.
Leyla Acaroglu does a great job breaking down greenwashing here.
What’s the difference between recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable products?
There are so many terms in the “eco-friendly” sphere that it’s often easy to get overwhelmed! Let’s break down what the most common terms mean.
Recyclable products can be broken down at the end of their current life into raw material, and used to make something else. Once recycled, products are normally downcycled, meaning they are broken down into a lower-value product.
Recycled products are made from products that have already been recycled, like recycled copy paper. And plot twist! Recycled products may not necessarily be recyclable, due to the different life cycles of different products (did you know that paper can only be recycled up to six times?).
Upcycled products are created from waste or unwanted products, like these ecobricks.
Compostable products can be completely broken down at the end of its life to provide the earth with nutrients, but only in specific conditions. There is a big difference between home-compostable and industrial-compostable products – we talk more about this below.
Biodegradable products refer to their natural ability to decompose into the environment. This is similar to the compostable term, but comes with a big catch! The term “biodegradable” isn’t really policed, and there’s no standard governing the label in Australia as yet. Products labelled as biodegradable don’t have to specify the amount of time it takes to actually decompose, and as all things eventually decompose (it just might take 400 million years), it doesn’t really mean much – just like the term “natural”.
Why is single-use plastic bad?
If you already know this, you’re more advanced than I was. I’d always known to stay away from single-use plastic – that’s why I brought my totes everywhere and declined extra packaging. But what, exactly, makes it so bad?
Plastic is made from non-renewable resources, including coal, natural gas, and crude oil. Such ingredients are called fossil fuels, because they were formed from the bodies of dead plants and animals from over 300 million years ago. They’re a finite resource, and burning them releases carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. Because they’re cheap to process with great bang for buck, burning fossil fuels are the main cause of global warming.
Most single-use plastics are used within minutes, like a plastic straw, but will persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Single-use plastics make up 40% of the plastic produced every year. This includes plastic bags, food wrappers, coffee cups and more. Most single-use plastics are used within minutes, like a plastic straw, but will persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Due to our culture of convenience, we’ve ramped up the production of plastics now more than ever; half of all plastics ever manufactured have been made in the last 15 years, with production expected to double by 2050. Because of all these factors, plastic pollution is now one of our most pressing environmental issues.
That’s not to say that single-use plastic is all bad – it’s not. It’s played a significant role in revolutionizing healthcare and scientific research. Plastic straws are also deemed an important tool in the lives of people with physical disabilities, helping them eat and drink in a way that alternatives cannot.
So while single-use plastic definitely has its merits, most of what we encounter in day-to-day life can be swapped for more sustainable replacements.
🌱 Single-use plastic is made from non-renewable resources
🌱 Its production contributes to global warming
🌱 Its disposal contributes to mass pollution
What is bio-plastic?
Bioplastic is plastic made from plants or other biological materials. In food packaging, the main type of bioplastic used is called PLA (polylactic acids) which is derived from corn and sugarcane. Its production process has been argued to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses.
When you’re done with it, bioplastic can be sent to an industrial composting facility to break down. In most cases, bioplastic doesn’t degrade in a meaningful timeframe without industrial help, whether in landfill or your home compost. In that way, it can exist much like normal plastics when not disposed of properly.
Bioplastics are not to be confused with biodegradable plastics, which are made from traditional fossil fuels – just engineered to break down more quickly.
Bioplastic is made from renewable resources
Its production has been argued to produce significantly less greenhouse gasses than traditional plastic
It doesn’t break down without industrial help
It exists like normal plastic if not disposed of properly
What’s the difference between home-compostable and industrial-compostable products?
Let’s start with the basics. What does it mean to be compostable?
Composting is an aerobic process that reduces the release of methane (a greenhouse gas that is eighty times more potent than carbon dioxide) during organic matter breakdown.
When something is fully compostable, it means that it breaks down at the end of its life and provides the earth with nutrients once it is completely degraded. Think, an apple core.
Most bioplastic we see in circulation at our favourite restaurants and cafes require industrial composting facilities in order to break it down. Currently, there are 10 industrial composting facilities in Australia that will process bioplastic foodware. These facilities provide the perfect conditions required to break down the bioplastic, but you may find it difficult to see your compostable coffee cup end up there. Because these facilities are so few and far between, and with the lack of composting initiatives set up by local councils and cities, bioplastics are often destined for landfill.
Home-compostable products are able to break down in your home compost bin, alongside your fruit and vegetable scraps. Any component used in the product, including ink or adhesives, will decompose into organic soil without requiring the stringent conditions that an industrial composting facility provides.
Don’t have a home compost? This might help:
Sharewaste links up those without composting with those who do
Planet Ark‘s Food Scraps & Recycling Near You will help you find your nearest composter
Thinking of setting up your own home compost and live in Waverley Council? Join Waverley Council’s Compost Revolution. Do their online quiz and you’ll receive an 80% discount on a compost bin or worm farm delivered direct to your door
Why does sustainable packaging matter?
Australians throw away almost 2 million tonnes of packaging each year. When we think about all the raw, unrenewable materials and energy that have been used to create it; the emissions that have been and will be produced once it inevitably ends up in landfill; and the millions of years it’ll spend rotting in landfill before it decomposes, we come to understand why sustainable packaging matters so much.
Instead of recycling plastic that we barely use until it ends up in landfill, it makes sense for us to just… stop using single-use plastic. At least, where possible. By reducing the amount that we use, we could make a meaningful impact on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and its effect on our environment.