Single Use Plastics: A Primer

A pile of plastics by the sea with huts nearby

Everyone is talking about the problem with single use plastics. India was on the verge of banning it just last year. Its in memes, forwards and public interest ads on the TV. Yet many of us are still unclear – what is this evil called single use plastic? And why is it evil in the first place? TCC decided to make a small primer which responds to some of these concerns. These responses are extracts from the United Nations Environment Programme’s document entitled ‘Single Use Plastics – A roadmap to sustainability’ (2018).

What is single use plastic?

Single-use plastics, often also referred to as disposable plastics, are commonly used for plastic packaging and include items intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled. These include, among other items, grocery bags, food packaging, bottles, straws, containers, cups and cutlery.

Why is single use plastic a problem?

In 2015, plastic packaging waste accounted for 47% of the plastic waste generated globally, with half of that appearing to come from Asia. According to a recent report, the most common finds during international coastal cleanups are, in order of magnitude, cigarette butts, plastic beverage bottles, plastic bottle caps, food wrappers, plastic grocery bags, plastic lids, straws and stirrers, glass beverage bottles, other kinds of plastic bags, and foam take-away containers. Single-use plastics took most of the spots in this Top Ten and it is not hard to imagine the rankings for waste found inland would be similar. In addition to people’s negligence, the large presence of single-use plastics in the environment is symptomatic of poor or failing waste management systems.

Plastic waste causes a plethora of problems:

  • The production of plastic is largely reliant on fossil hydrocarbons, which are non-renewable resources.
  • Most plastics do not biodegrade. Instead, they slowly break down into smaller fragments known as microplastics. Studies suggest that plastic bags and containers made of expanded polystyrene foam (commonly referred to as “Styrofoam”) can take up to thousands of years to decompose, contaminating soil and water.
  • Plastic bags can block waterways and exacerbate natural disasters. By clogging sewers and providing breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests, plastic bags can increase the transmission of vector-borne diseases like malaria.
  • High concentrations of plastic materials, particularly plastic bags, have been found blocking the airways and stomachs of hundreds of species. Plastic bags are often ingested by turtles and dolphins who mistake them for food.
  • There is evidence that the toxic chemicals added during the manufacture of plastic transfer to animal tissue, eventually entering the human food chain. Styrofoam products, which contain carcinogenic chemicals like styrene and benzene, are highly toxic if ingested, damaging the nervous systems, lungs and reproductive organs. The toxins in Styrofoam containers can leach into food and drinks.
  • In poor countries, plastic waste is often burned for heat or cooking, exposing people to toxic emissions. Disposing of plastic waste by burning it in open-air pits releases harmful gases like furan and dioxin.
  • The economic damage caused by plastic waste is vast. Plastic litter in the Asia-Pacific region alone costs its tourism, fishing and shipping industries $1.3 billion per year. In Europe, cleaning plastic waste from coasts and beaches costs about €630 million per year.
  • Studies suggest that the total economic damage to the world’s marine ecosystem caused by plastic amounts to at least $13 billion every year.

The economic, health and environmental reasons to act are clear.

Why do we need to urgently address this problem?

Our ability to cope with plastic waste is already overwhelmed. Only nine per cent of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Most ends up in landfills, dumps or in the environment. According to recent estimates, 79% of the plastic waste ever produced now sits in landfills, dumps or in the environment, while about 12% has been incinerated and only 9% has been recycled.

If current consumption patterns and waste management practices continue, then by 2050 there will be around 12 billion tonnes of plastic litter in landfills and the environment. By this time, if the growth in plastic production continues at its current rate, then the plastics industry may account for 20 per cent of the world’s total oil consumption.

What is the situation in India?

India, under the Plastic Waste Management Rules, 2016 has banned only non-compostable plastic bags that have a thickness of less than 50μ. The efficacy of the ban is unresearched and hence unknown. States and UTs in the country have brought out their own bans of differing definitions. These include: Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Sikkim, New Delhi, Maharashtra, Kerala and West Bengal. The effectiveness of these bans is largely unclear or not strong. Sikkim and HP have reported some reduction of use.