plastic waste faq
What are the best alternatives to single-use plastics?
Our recommendations are guided by three principles:
There are many types of waste. Why focus on plastics?
It is true that plastics make up less than 20% of municipal solid waste in America. But the properties of plastic are a perfect storm for a waste crisis: they are not biodegradable, they are difficult to recycle, and they contain toxic compounds. Because it is not biodegradable, nearly all of the plastic ever produced still exists. And it hasn't been turned into park benches, either. Only around 8% of discarded plastics ends up getting recycled. Even when plastic is recycled, it typically can only be recycled once until the quality degrades enough that it must then be sent to a landfill. This stands in contrast to highly recyclable materials like aluminum and steel, which can theoretically be remade into new product an infinite number of times. Because plastics can only be recycled once, in the long term, all plastic is destined to become non-recyclable waste.
The plastic waste clogging oceans and ecosystems is not benign either -- a recent study found that three-quarters of plastics studied contain toxic compounds. Some of these compounds, like BPA (bisphenol-A), are "endocrine disruptors", which interfere with our body's hormone systems.
Are plastics harmful to human health?
It depends. There are many different types of plastics, some of which contain compounds known to harm human health. Concerning toxic compounds in some types of plastic include phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), both of which are "endocrine disruptors" that can interfere with your body's hormone system. The risk of these compounds actually leaching out of plastics and into your food or water is greater when they are heated. Importantly, the practical effect on human health is probably more a function of chronic exposure over years, rather than acute poisoning. So, while the occasional water bottle won't kill you, we should be concerned about the potential effects of daily exposure to these compounds across a lifetime.
How do plastics harm the environment?
In many ways, including but not limited to:
1. Unlike humans, animals often eat plastic and/or eat prey that has eaten plastic. So the toxic effects of endocrine disruptors such as phthalates and BPA are amplified in animals, as compared to humans. The physical ingestion of plastic can also harm an animal's digestive tract, independent of chemical toxicity.
2. Animals are frequently injured by plastics when they become entangled in or collide with them.
3. Plastic exposure is associated with disease in coral reefs.
4. Microplastic contamination affects the chemical and biological composition of the soil.
5. Microplastic contamination is causing "plastic rain", with a recent study estimating that over 16,000 metric tons of plastic fall from the sky each year.
6. The sheer bulk of plastic waste that we are producing physically obstructs habitats. For example, there is an island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean twice the size of Texas. And it’s growing.
Will banning single-use consumer plastics like straws and grocery bags really make a difference?
Yes, reducing consumer plastic waste can make a difference. While industries such as construction and textile production also produce plastic waste, consumer products and packaging account for over 150 million tons of plastic waste per year. Eliminating just one product is not enough, but if all consumers cut their plastic waste in half, it would make a big difference.
Why aren't plastics getting recycled? What happens to them after I put them in my recycling bin?
Plastic is extremely difficult to recycle, with most ending up in a landfill or incinerator. One problem is that there are numerous different types of plastic, and only some of these are recyclable at all. The separation of different types of plastic in recycling sorting facilities has been a challenge. But even the plastics that are hailed as being "recyclable" degrade in quality each time that they are melted down and reused. In contrast, highly recyclable materials like aluminum can be melted down and reformed an infinite number of times with no degradation in quality.
What about compostable plastics? Let's just make all of our stuff out of that!
While "compostable" plastics may be better than the current status quo, they are not a magical solution. These materials are technically compostable, but they usually will only break down in a complex industrial composting operation, not in your backyard or in nature. So if compostable plastics find their way into a trash heap, they can be just as damaging as traditional materials.
What are the most common single-use plastics?
Some of the most common single-use plastics discarded in the household trash include plastic food wrappers, bottles, bags, caps, lids, straws, stirrers, and a variety of packaging. Many of these items are entirely unnecessary. For example, Americans alone discard over 7 billion plastic tampon applicators per year, even though biodegradable applicators are just as convenient, affordable, and easy to find. Check out the “shop” section of our site for recommended alternatives to common products.
I don't see much plastic litter in my community. Where is all this supposed plastic waste?
If you live in the United States, much of your waste is shipped overseas to developing countries, where it is dumped in largely unregulated collection areas that expose vulnerable populations to the risks of mismanaged waste. Additionally, a lot of this plastic enters our waterways, making its way into the oceans, where massive islands of plastics are accumulating offshore. For example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas and growing. So, while you may not see your community's plastic waste, it is out there. Plastic polluters hope that this mismanaged waste will be "out of sight, out of mind".
What changes can I make in my own life to reduce plastic waste?
An easy first step is to begin replacing your household single-use plastics with sustainable alternatives. Shop our recommendations at www.goplasticfree.org/shop.
But aren't some single-use plastics necessary?
Probably, at least in the near-term. A good example is the healthcare industry, where disposable products help to reduce the risk of infection. Disposable syringes, gloves, pipettes, IV bags, and a host of other products have been an invaluable way to keep patients safe and healthy. Alternatives should be developed, but this will take time. Ending the frivolous use of household single-use products is an easier target in the near term. Check our "shop" section for product recommendations.
What are "microplastics"?
Plastics don't biodegrade, but they do break down into tiny pieces called "microplastics" that pollute our waterways and soils. These tiny particles are difficult to remediate, and are easily ingested by both wildlife and humans. Microplastics are also intentionally introduced into some products, such as "exfoliating" face scrubs.
Everyone seems to be banning single-use plastics these days. Is the problem getting better?
Not really. Municipal bans on specific products are a step in the right direction. But plastic production continues to steadily increase, and it will take more than a few plastic straw bans to change that.
How long does it take for plastic to biodegrade?
Forever. Plastic does not biodegrade, because it is not an organic substance.
If plastics are so bad, why do so many corporations still use them in their products?
Plastics are durable, low-cost, lightweight, and easy to manufacture. As long as it is more profitable for corporations to use plastics than to explore sustainable alternatives, they will continue to do so. If the public were outraged enough to boycott or regulate consumer plastics, the profitability of plastics would drop, and corporations would change their behavior.
Isn't it my right to use a plastic straw if I want to?
No. And it isn't your right to dump DDT on your garden or spray CFCs in the air either. This is like that -- each individual’s use of plastic products affects all of us, and all of the natural environment. At the same time, of course there are a few individuals who require straws due to a range of disabilities. These persons should have straws made available for them, but there is no reason that these straws could not be re-useable or biodegradable.
Is it true that there is a giant island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean?
Yes, there is an area of trash twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean, mostly made up of plastic products. It is not exactly an "island" -- you can't walk around on it or set up camp there. But ocean currents have collected both macroplastic and microplastic waste in this location in very high concentrations. And the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not the only one of these so-called "garbage patches" -- There are least four other massive plastic accumulation zones in oceans around the world. Plastic products are the majority of what makes up these garbage patches, largely either polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP) items.
What is a nurdle?
Nurdles are small plastic pellets used in manufacturing virgin plastic products. A shocking number are spilled into the ocean each year, largely through shipping accidents. In 2017, for example, a shipping accident caused nearly 50 metric tonnes to spill into the waters off the coast of South Africa. By one estimate, over 50 billion pellets may enter the ocean annually from UK sources alone. These microplastic particles are very often ingested by wildlife, and can contain toxic substances like Bisphenol A (BPA) and per- or poly-fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS).