Guide to the World of Single-Use Plastic
Sep 15, 2022
Plastic, a ground-breaking innovation from the early 1900s that revolutionized the way we do things (well everything) has now become one of planet Earth’s greatest challenges. Plastic is found everywhere around us to the extent that you can now find it in your bloodstream. According to a 2022 report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the global consumption of plastic has quadrupled in the last three decades. To supply this seemingly ceaseless need for plastic, the report goes on to state that plastic production has more than doubled over the last 10 years.
This demand and supply for plastic is not without consequence. Plastic waste generation has similarly increased over that same time. In 2019, we generated 350 million metric tonnes of plastic waste2, which based on the global human population at the time, equates to roughly 45kg per person.
What are Single-Use Plastics (SUPs)?
Driving this plastic waste juggernaut are single-use plastics (SUP). The term has become a household word in recent years, and equally if not more ubiquitous in household waste, landfill and in our surroundings in general. SUPs, as their name suggests, are plastics that are designed and developed to be discarded after first use. This includes commonly found items such as plastic packaging, straws, bottle cap wrapping and so on. According to the latest available data, most plastic waste, at nearly two-thirds, is plastic that has a lifetime of less than 5 years, which includes SUPs like packaging2. On average these last 6 months before being disposed of. In fact, in 2018, 46% of plastic waste generated that year comprised plastic packaging.
Why do we use plastics including SUPs?
Since its invention, plastic has drastically changed our lives. From conveniently packing up last night’s leftovers to helping astronauts breathe in space, plastics allow us to do things more conveniently and cheaply than other materials we have lying around like paper or glass. Underpinning the convenience are a host of useful properties including a lack of chemical reactivity, thermal and electrical insulation and barrier properties that make plastics a mainstay from homes to large industries.
What do we know about SUPs?
However, for a material that people use extensively in their everyday lives, we seem to not know an awful lot about it. This point is of particular relevance when we talk about post-consumer plastics, that is, what happened to that plastic drink cup after you made a big show of putting it into the “PLASTIC” bin at the movie theatre. At Island Climate Initiative, we work with some of the premier consumer goods companies in Sri Lanka. As important users of plastics for their packaging, they are aware of both the advantages and disadvantages that plastics bring to the table along with your iced coffee. They are often at the forefront of attempts to reduce their plastic footprint and what our discussions with them have revealed is that consumers (you and I both) are not truly knowledgeable when it comes to disposing of plastic. A while back, I decided to test this claim. The guinea pigs for my social experiment were my family, friends, and acquaintances. During our usual mundane conversations, I would slip in little questions on plastic. By the end of this little investigation, I realized that those companies were not wrong. Now, I know that this was hardly a high-end research activity, but it does suggest that your average person knows little of the technicalities of this material that their lives revolve around. It is either that or I really need to rethink my choices on the people I surround myself with. And this is often not really their fault. Much of the PR surrounding plastics has been to promote their benefits rather than the drawbacks. When an advert drops on the latest flavors of heaven knows what, it is about how you will be transported to a never-before-experienced realm of gastronomic bliss rather than how the item comes packaged in a layer of plastic. It is only now that plastic waste, particularly SUPs, has become such an enormous issue that people have started to take some notice.
How do we solve this problem?
As with solving any problem, the first step is to know as much about it as possible. And right now, most of us are lagging in that regard. Awareness can go as far as you want to learn about something. So as consumers, we can start off with the following two areas that I believe are quite important following our work at ICI:
Different types of plastic, or polymers; The recyclability of plastic.
Plastic is plastic. Right? Well, not really. Plastic is a bit of a catchall. It comprises different types such as PET, LDPE, HDPE, PVC, PP etc., and different combinations of these or combinations with other materials such as Aluminium to create different forms with different properties. Their different compositions and properties mean that they are used for different needs and subsequently often require different methods of disposal. For example, taking the Sri Lankan context, while PET and HDPE are heavily recycled in Sri Lanka, the other forms of Plastic are much less so or not at all. Furthermore, recycling does not lend itself at all to multi-layer laminates, that is plastic material composed of more than one layer of different polymers. So how does this pose an issue to plastic waste management? Picture this. Material Recovery Facilities or MRFs are a relatively new concept in Sri Lanka, being pioneered by many of the country’s consumer goods manufacturers and recyclers to promote the collection of plastic waste at scale and channel it towards recycling5. Considering that commercial-scale recycling in Sri Lanka is essentially restricted to PET and HDPE, collecting other polymers or combinations of them ends up reducing the effectiveness of these sorts of systems. This is largely due to the extra effort that is then needed to segregate the recyclable plastics from the ones that are not. Segregation if it happens further upstream, ideally at a household level, where the quantities are smaller, would contribute to increasing the efficiencies of the systems downstream.
Rethinking your habits
Now, the idea behind this piece is not to suggest that teaching people how to recognize the different types of plastic will solve the issues surrounding waste management. But raising that awareness and increasing the knowledge base of the general public is a crucial first step. It can make people rethink their choices when it comes to plastic use, rethink their plastic waste disposal habits, and importantly promote conversation on plastic waste management, all of which contribute to the physical systems and processes being implemented at the post-consumer end of the chain.
The way forward: Circular Economy of Plastic
While recycling may be better than plastic ending up in landfill, the focus should be on upcycling and setting up a circular economy. A good example of this is re-using recycled plastic back into primary packaging. While there are many quality and regulatory aspects to doing this, it is far from rocket science.Another excellent approach is to replace the usual plastic packaging with alternatives that are either not plastic or with those which are at least recyclable or biodegradable. This is especially applicable for multi-layer laminates. However, a caveat is that replacing current packaging with recyclable alternatives must be preceded by ensuring that suitable recycling systems exist in the first place. For example, replacing multi-layer packaging with one that is only a single layer of PP means nothing if there is no way to recycle PP. Furthermore, it must also be noted that plastic is used because of the excellent properties it boasts which are critical to conserving the quality of the products being packaged or safety in their use. Therefore, if alternatives are being proposed, it is mandatory that they perform equally or better than their plastic counterparts.
What this shows is that, while pushing for greater awareness creation, it is also extremely important to continue to innovate and search for new ways of tackling plastic waste. The two must work in tandem if our efforts are to result in tangible benefits
Working with Island Climate Initiative
At Island Climate Initiative, this is exactly what we try to do. We work closely with some of Sri Lanka’s leading consumer goods companies and government stakeholders to support their efforts in leading the advancement of Sri Lanka’s plastic waste management practices. Plato said, “Our need will be the real creator,” or as most of us know it, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” When it comes to plastic waste, never has the necessity to innovate been greater.
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J.R. & Law, K.L., 2017. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances, 3(7) [Accessed 2022].
OECD, 2022. Global plastics outlook. Global Plastics: Outlook Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, pp.1–201 [Accessed 2022].
Greenpeace International, 2018. A Crisis of Convenience: The corporations behind the plastics pollution pandemic. [online] Available at: https://issuu.com/greenpeaceinternational/docs/crisis_of_convenience_final [Accessed 2022].
UNEP (2018). SINGLE-USE PLASTICS: A Roadmap for Sustainability (Rev. ed., pp. vi; 6) [Accessed 2022].
BIODIVERSITY SRI LANKA. 2022. Material Recovery Facility: is it a game changer in plastic waste collection in Sri Lanka? - BIODIVERSITY SRI LANKA. [online] Available at: https://biodiversitysrilanka.org/material-recovery-facility-is-it-a-game-changer-in-plastic-waste-collection-in-sri-lanka [Accessed 2022].