How Single-Use Plastics Are Making Climate Change Worse

Convenient, multipurpose and everywhere, single-use plastic is hard to entirely live without. But it comes with an environmental toll that’s only growing.
Posted on
April 14, 2021
How Single-Use Plastics Are Making Climate Change Worse

At the turn of the 20th century, it was marketed as “the material of a thousand uses.”

Plastic was expected to change our future for the better—but no one could have predicted just how ubiquitous it would become. 

In the first 10 years of this century, more plastic was produced than in the 100 years prior. 

Are we using more single-use plastics today?

Since the 1950s, when its manufacturing exploded, plastic has crept into every aspect of our lives. You’re reading this on your phone, tablet or computer—devices that wouldn’t exist without plastic. Chances are, you’re sitting on a chair or couch made with plastic components, and you may be wearing polyester, a plastic fabric.

Given the amount of plastic surrounding you at this precise moment, it probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that in the first 10 years of this century, more plastic was produced than in the 100 years prior. 

How much greenhouse gas does plastic release?

While plastic has improved our lives in many ways, it has also had profound effects on our environment and health. Plastic and climate change go hand in hand. In 2019, the production and incineration of plastic added an estimated 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—roughly what 189 coal power plants would produce—and this annual rate is only projected to grow.

How much waste does plastic create?

And then there’s the fact that at least 8 million tons of plastic waste enters oceans every year. If we care about the fate of our planet, reducing our dependency on plastic is key.

Here’s what you need to know about plastic—and the future of our world with (or without) it.  

Why are single-use plastics bad for the environment?

A single-use plastic grocery bag hanging from rope at a grocery store.
27 million tons of plastic ended up at landfills in the U.S. in 2018.

Think back to the moment you started to reconsider plastic.

Maybe it was because you watched a David Attenborough documentary. Maybe you learned that 27 million tons of plastic ended up at landfills in the U.S. in 2018. Or perhaps you saw an image of a dead seabird or whale found with a stomach full of plastic packaging. 

While these are all good reasons alone to give up plastic, the truth is that the material takes its toll well before it ever reaches the hands of consumers. 

Plastic is “among the most energy-intensive materials to produce,” Carroll Muffett, head of the Center for International Environmental Law, told NPR in 2019.

What is the carbon footprint of a plastic bag?

It’s difficult to determine the total plastic carbon footprint of a single-use product from cradle to grave, but understanding how it’s created might give you an inkling.

Plastic starts its life as a fossil fuel, either natural gas or oil. Forests and other natural spaces are often cleared or damaged to extract these resources, which then must be refined—a process that in the US alone results in GHG emissions equivalent to about 3.8 million passenger vehicles per year. 

Then—after the plastic has lived its brief life as, say, a straw or single-use bag—comes the part of the story you already know: It ends up in a garbage can, recycling bin, incinerator or somewhere in the ocean. 

How do single-use plastics contribute to climate change?

Regardless of where the plastic ends up, single-use plastics contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere long after it’s been discarded. 

Plastic pollution and climate change are closely linked. At the garbage dump, plastic degrades slowly over a period of some 400 to 1,000 years, emitting GHGs and leaching chemicals into the groundwater in the process.

The 15 percent of plastic waste that’s incinerated results in about 5.9 million metric tons of CO2 in the US—that’s equivalent to heating 681,000 homes for a year.

Plastic in the oceans doesn’t just become lunch for confused and hungry turtles—researchers believe microplastics may even be disrupting the ocean’s ability to recapture carbon dioxide

Does recycling help make plastic more sustainable?

Recycling bin used to recycle single-use plastic.

Even when we divert plastic from the garbage bin, it may not be recycled for any number of reasons.

Something as simple as the color of the material can prove problematic, for example, with many machines are unable to properly sort black plastic. There’s also the very common issue of contamination: When too many non-recyclables are mixed in with recyclables, it can result in the entire load of material being junked.

The bottom line is that out of the 8.3 billion metrics tons of plastic ever produced, only 9 percent of it has been recycled.

Many American municipalities don’t have the facilities to manage recycling properly. The complexities of this issue came to light in 2018, when China announced it would no longer accept waste from the United States for recycling.

The bottom line is that out of the 8.3 billion metrics tons of plastic ever produced, only 9 percent of it has been recycled. 

Are bioplastics better for the environment than single-use plastics? 

A field of corn used which is harvested for the production of bioplastics

Also known as plant-based plastics, bioplastic materials are often made in part from sugarcane or corn.

In the past 20 years, they’ve been adopted for use in everything from food packaging to textiles.

The idea is that bioplastics decompose more quickly than their petroleum-based cousins. Unfortunately, this is only possible if they’re collected and composted under specific conditions, typically within an industrial composting facility—few of which exist.

If your municipality won’t accept bio-based plastics for composting, it ends up in landfills and behaves much the same as conventional plastic: lasting for centuries and releasing methane over time.  

“The reality is the systems aren’t in place to accommodate for [bioplastics],” Dr. Dune Ives, CEO of Lonely Whale, an environmental non-profit, told National Geographic in 2018.

Finally, much like petroleum-based plastic, there’s a cost in their production: Growing corn for bioplastics may divert land from agriculture and also be resource-intensive. Factors like this only further complicate eco-calculations.

However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t hope for the future. At the moment, researchers are developing a more cost-effective way to produce a truly biodegradable bioplastic from algae, which may replace conventional plastics someday. 

Is a plastic-free world possible?

Only a year ago, it felt like the world’s unsustainable relationship with plastic was finally coming to a head. In 2020, places from New York City to Uganda had banned single-use plastic bags. 

How COVID-19 impacted our use of plastic

Just when we were ready to make the breakup with single-use plastics Facebook official, along came COVID-19.

Now, we’re rethinking our one-time love affair. Sure, it’s pretty effortless for the most of us to decline a plastic straw, but it’s much harder to replace plastic gloves and masks. During the early days of the pandemic, plastic was used to 3D-print much-needed personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers, and more recently, it’s been critical to vaccine delivery. 

 Single-use plastic mask contributing to plastic pollution.
Realistically, breaking up with plastics once and for all was always going to be next to impossible.

Why can't we stop using single-use plastics?

Realistically, breaking up with plastics once and for all was always going to be next to impossible.

They’re integral to our modern lives not just because they’re versatile and inexpensive, but also because they’re lighter and easier to transport. To ditch them would mean using heavier goods, which come with their own carbon footprints. 

Are other materials more sustainable than single-use plastics?

This is where it gets tricky. Plastics are counter-intuitively the least impactful material as far as climate change is concerned.

Take, for instance, buying a bottle of your favorite soft drink.

Glass bottles may be retro-cool and feel more environmentally friendly, but they’re significantly more intensive to both produce and transport. One study found that soft drinks packaged in plastic result in 55 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than those packaged in glass or metal. 

That’s just one example of a good perceived as being “greener” actually having a higher carbon footprint.

Another is cloth bags. They last a great deal longer than single-use plastic ones, but according to a 2018 Government of Denmark study, a cotton bag needs to be used 7,100 times to offset the environmental cost of producing it.

That’s a number that will make you think twice before buying another cute branded tote. (As always, the lowest-carbon option is using what you already have.)

How can we reduce the amount of single-use plastic we use?

The average American uses up to 20 times more plastic than someone in India.

We may not have a way to live without plastic right now, but that doesn’t mean we can’t choose to live with a whole lot less of it. Consider this: The average American uses up to 20 times more plastic than someone in India, and the US also produces more single-use packaging per capita than any other country in the world. 

 Spices presented in bulk bins as a way of reducing the use of plastic waste.

Here are some steps to reduce your reliance on single-use plastics—and to encourage policies that may change how plastic is manufactured, distributed and managed at the end of its life:

1. Choose reusable plastic products

This is a step you may already be taking, but it doesn’t end at straws. Shop at bulk food stores, turn down takeout containers, and carry your own reusable totes and coffee mugs. Whenever possible, opt for higher-quality items built to last, and before buying something new, consider if you already have something you could repurpose. (Take inspiration from this amazing keep-cup hack.)

2. Borrow or buy secondhand

It’s not just single-use products that deserve a rethink. When possible, borrow or buy second-hand. If you do need to purchase something new, consider a product’s total cradle-to-grave impact, including how it’s manufactured and shipped, and how long you’ll use it.

3. Contact your local government

Yes, our individual choices as consumers matter, but policy change can have an even greater, wider-scale impact. Contact your relevant government department to find out how waste is collected, sorted and recycled in your area, and identify opportunities to improve.

Plastic’s earliest marketers were wrong: It isn’t just a “material of a thousand uses”—it’s a material we can’t live without (yet).

However, understanding how plastic affects the environment is critical to shopping smarter, working with our policymakers to spark positive change, and making individual choices that ensure a better future for our planet.

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Jessica Wynne Lockhart

Jessica Wynne Lockhart is a freelance journalist who writes for publications such as Smithsonian, Outside, and enRoute. A proponent of low and slow travel, she genuinely loves taking public transit.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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