The Impact of Single Use Plastic and Paper Items On Earth’s Environment and Safer Alternatives

One of the largest culprits of environmental harm we face today is single use plastic. These plastics come in all different forms and have a variety of uses for humans globally. When considering the negative environmental impacts of single use plastics, their value to us as humans might diminish, as the harm they are causing to our planet may not be worth their minor conveniences. Studies show that out of the approximate 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced since 1950, only nine percent of this plastic has been recycled. To put this staggering number into perspective, the weight of this plastic would equate to 25,000 Empire State Buildings or one billion elephants according to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Of the rest of the 91 percent of plastics that are not recycled, twelve percent is incinerated, while the 79 percent majority makes its way to landfills, dumps or into earth’s natural environment, and namely our planet’s oceans. Once this plastic enters our environment, it does not biodegrade, or break down naturally, and return to the environment in a benign state. Instead, these plastics gradually deteriorate into smaller pieces of plastic called “microplastics”.

For some types of single use plastics, including plastic bags and styrofoam, they can take from twenty to one thousand years to fully degrade. This means that during the many years that these plastics spend in our oceans and natural environment, they are contaminating our water and soil with the toxic chemicals used to manufacture them. These chemicals then poison the tissue of animals who live in earth’s natural environment. This poison enters and pollutes the human food chain, as we will then eat the animals that have been affected by these toxic chemicals. In essence, as our oceans and natural land environments are polluted with plastics, we end up eating our own plastic waste.

Microplastics and toxic plastic chemicals are not the only ways in which single use plastic is damaging our planet’s environment and endangering animals. Intact plastic items such as plastic bags and straws will choke, suffocate, starve and drown wildlife. Marine animals such as turtles and dolphins can mistake these plastic items for food, blocking their intestinal system once ingested. These blockages will usually result in death for these animals. In addition to succumbing to the deadly affects of plastic ingestion, marine life will also become tangled up in these plastic items and drown as a result. It is estimated that 100,000 marine animals, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and sea lions, die each year from plastic pollution. Nearly one mission sea birds will die from plastic ingestion as entanglement as well.

According to the organization Global Citizen, the current rate of plastic production has more than tripled since the 1990’s, with one half of the plastic in the world having been made after 2003. Today, the world’s oceans are home to approximately 150 million tons of plastic, the majority of which is non degradable and harmful to all marine life. Right now, there is a single patch of garbage floating in between the states of California and Hawaii which contains roughly 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

The problem with single use plastic is only getting worse, and especially in our planet’s oceans. It is estimated that every year, eight million tons of plastic litter infiltrates earth’s oceans and if we continue at this rate, plastic debris could outweigh fish by the year 2050. These facts are why it is so important that we as individuals take immediate initiative to reduce our use of single use plastics. If we do not, plastic waste in the planet’s oceans will increase by three times within ten years. Some of the biggest contributors to plastic litter in earth’s environment are plastic drinking bottles, plastic food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, plastic straws and stirrers and foam take-away containers. Switching to plastic free alternatives of these products and many more will drastically help to cut down on your contribution to earth’s plastic crisis. Read below to learn about safer alternatives to single use plastics and how switching to these alternatives will positively impact the earth and its fragile ecosystems.

  1. Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are one of the most widely used and disposed of forms of single use plastics in the United States. It is estimated that each day, five hundred million plastic straws are used by Americans alone. These straws are made of Polypropylene which degrades very slowly in earth’s environment and is not easily recycled. Because plastic straws are lightweight and not biodegradable, they will usually end up in our water systems and finally, in our planet’s oceans due to beach littering, wind, trash facilities, barges and boats. Often times, plastic straws will only degrade into microplastics which threaten marine animals and eventually, the human food chain.

With plastic straws at the forefront of the conversation about plastic waste on our planet, many alternatives to this type of plastic have been made available to consumers. Whether they are made of stainless steel, glass or biodegradable materials, you can still purchase straws that have a far less negative impact on earth’s environment. Check out one option for fully biodegradable straws here. These straws are made of one hundred percent plant based materials that when disposed of, will break down into non-toxic materials which will not harm the environment or earth’s animals.

Some cities in America, including cities in New York, Washington, Florida, California, Hawaii and New Jersey are banning the use of single use plastic straws. These bans might be paving the way for other cities and states to also implement this type of ban. Some companies, such as Starbucks, Hilton Hotels, Marriott Hotels, American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Royal Caribbean are also pledging to eventually ban the use of plastic straws. If plastic straw bans become the new standard in the United States, we may be well on our way to greatly reducing the amount of these plastics found in the environment.

2. Take Away Coffee Cups

The United States has become a culture of coffee lovers meaning that more single use coffee cups are being used than ever before. Every year, six billion paper coffee cups are used by Americans, resulting in the loss of 6.5 million trees to make these paper cups. Through the production of paper coffee cups, four billion gallons of water is used as well as enough energy to provide power to 54,000 homes for one year. With so many non-paper or plastic alternatives to coffee cups, these water and energy resources are truly going to waste. If you are interested in reducing your waste impact on the environment when it comes to your coffee cup, there are many reusable options available. One of these options can be found here. This reusable coffee mug is made of biodegradable and naturally organic bamboo fibers that will never harm the environment. This mug is dishwasher safe and a great alternative to single use paper coffee cups, as you can use it day after day to cut down on your own consumer waste. This reusable coffee cup also comes in a variety of colors to suit your personal preferences. In addition to preserving the environment by using a reusable coffee mug, you might also save a bit of money, as some coffee shops will offer a discount to patrons who bring their own reusable mug.

3. Plastic Water Bottles

If you have kept up with conversation surrounding single use plastic products and their harmful impacts on the environment, you will know that plastic water bottles are a primary offender when it comes to plastic consumption and waste. The hazards of plastic water bottles reach beyond their impact on our environment and can even have negative impacts on your health as well as your wallet.

The harmful effects of plastic water bottles on our environment start as early as the manufacturing phase. These plastic bottles are made of a material called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, plastic and to produce one PET plastic water bottle it takes the amount of oil that would fill the water bottle one fourth of the way full. This results in the requirement of seventeen million barrels of oil to produce one year’s supply of plastic water bottles. This amount of oil could provide fuel for 1.3 million cars  or power 190,000 homes for one year. If you have ever been curious as to why bottles of water are so pricey at the grocery store when you can get water for much less out of your home’s tap, it is because ninety percent of the cost of a single use plastic water bottle cost comes from this production phase. Additionally, manufacturing plastic water bottles delivers 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere annually. From these single use plastic water bottles that are produced, thirty-eight billion of them will wind up in landfills. This equates to two million tons of plastic water bottles piling up in our landfills every year. Another portion of these bottles will end up in our oceans, killing or endangering marine life. Not only does the production of these bottles negatively impact our environment, but sourcing the water to fill them up has also been known to have negative effects on water supply. Much of the water that fills these bottles comes from locations like California which already have limited water supply. The company Nestle is even contributing to water shortages in countries like Pakistan, Nigeria and even the United States.

In addition to harming earth’s environment, single use plastic water bottles can also harm human health. These water bottles contain chemicals such as bisphenol A, or BPA, and antimony which can create a wealth of health issues for humans, including reproductive issues, breast cancer, asthma and dizziness. The water supplies that are used to fill these plastic bottles are tested four times less for pollutants and toxins than tap water. This means that although it may seem like bottled water is cleaner than alternative water sources, it could actually be more damaging to your health. When you choose to switch to a reusable water bottle, you are choosing to protect earth’s environment and your own health. Some environmental and health benefits of switching to a reusable water bottle include reducing the amount of plastic waste in our landfills, protecting the earth’s animals and ecosystems from harmful plastic waste and reducing he amount of harmful chemicals you ingest. 

Choosing The Right Reusable Water Bottle For You

Fortunately, there are a variety options to pick from when shopping for a reusable water bottle that works best for your lifestyle. Reusable plastic water bottles feature easy to use lids, are mostly durable and usually cost effective. However, these plastic bottles still might contain BPA and can be produced with non-reusable resources. If a reusable plastic water bottle appeals to you, check out a cost effective option here. You can also choose to use a stainless steel reusable water bottle which has its own set of benefits. Stainless steel reusable water bottles are BPA free, highly durable and usually insulated. Like plastic water bottles, stainless steel bottles also come with downsides including their heavy weight and higher price point. Check out a great stainless steel reusable water bottle option here. Glass water bottles are another eco-friendly water bottle choice. These bottles are usually the best option in terms of health as they contain no BPA or harmful chemicals. They also provide the benefit of transparency so you are able to easily track the amount of water you are drinking throughout the day. However, reusable glass water bottles are not insulated, can be heavy and are the most fragile. If you are interested in investing in a glass water bottle, find a great option here.

The single use plastic items listed above are only three of many that you use in your everyday life. Additional types of single use plastics include plastic bags, coffee pods, plastic food packaging, plastic produce bags, styrofoam or plastic take out containers, cellophane wrap and plastic cutlery. To reduce your contribution to plastic and paper waste, start replacing your single use items with more sustainable and longer lasting alternatives today.

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