Single-use Plastic: Some insights

The world in a plastic bag. Photo source by: Jcomp on Freepick

Guest Author : Laura Maria Diaz
Laura Maria, a Colombian graphic designer who holds a double master degree in “Integrated Urbanism Sustainable Design” from the University of Stuttgart (Germany) and Ain Sham University (Egypt) brings to us more insights on the topic from her experience with her master thesis topic: the behavior of single-use plastic consumption in Cairo and factors that might encourage pro-environmental behavior change.

As Oman takes steps towards reducing the consumption of Single-Use Plastic (SUP), MCTspaceLab brings you an insightful article, by a guest author focusing on pressing questions such as: What are SUP? What are the problems created by the usage of SUP? What are the long-term impacts of SUP? And most importantly - What are the alternatives of SUP?

Plastic isn’t the problem. It’s what we do with it.” - Erik Solheim, Head of UN Environment.
Have you ever thought about where the plastic comes from and where it ends up after you throw it away? Well, it does not magically disappear in the garbage bin. It ends up in landfills, the oceans and waterways, and the environment (UN Environment, 2018). Most of the time we do not have a second thought about what happened with the things we trash away. We produce a lot of waste and a significant amount of plastic debris- thanks to our urban lifestyle and consumption behaviors. To an extent, the cities where we live, produce garbage through economic growth and overconsumption of resources and goods. Often, they cannot deal with the amount of waste that is being produced. Nowadays, plastic pollution is the biggest environmental issue that humanity is facing (Parker, 2019). Most of it is a result of the unrestricted consumption of single-use plastic (SUP) and the inadequate disposal of it.
What is SUP? SUP are plastic items designed to be used once, then thrown away, and rarely recycled (UN Environment, 2018). As Terry (2012), author of the book Plastic Free explains better “seconds in your hand forever in the landfill [and in the environment]”. SUP, as all kinds of plastics, are made mainly from fossil fuel-based chemicals, in other words from oil, a non-renewable resource that leads to a depletion of natural resources and contributes to climate change (Lindwall, 2020). The most commonly used SUP and also found in the environment are disposable plastic bags, cutlery and cups, cigarette butts, straws, coffee stirrers, soda & water bottles, and food packaging (UN Environment, 2018). And since the pandemic, disposable masks and gloves are added to the list. These items are so ubiquitous and convenient for the fast rhythm of urban lifestyle, that we barely realize that we are using and disposing of them on a daily basis.

The Problem
How can a disposable product be made of a material that is indestructible? - Tanya Streeter, world champion free diver & environmental activist

Plastic is a versatile material that has qualities such as convenience, durability, resistance, lightweight, and low cost. However, the qualities that make this material great are a burden for the environment. It is not biodegradable, instead, it breaks down into smaller pieces, known as microplastics, that remain in the environment and release toxins (UN Environment, 2018). While microplastics are not immediately visible, they accumulate in the environment, especially in the ocean both, on the bottom and on the surface, such in the The Great Garbage Patch” located in the North Pacific, (National Geographic Society, 2019). It is estimated that 80 percent of the plastic found in the ocean come from land-based sources (Ibid).The most worrying is that plastic can take from hundreds up to thousands of years to decompose (UN Environment, 2018).

Plastic pollution on streets. Source: Author

Have you thought about the impacts of the use of a disposable cup for your daily coffee, a straw for your soda or a plastic bag for your grocery shopping? We can assume that it is just one cup, one straw or one bag, that those will not do any harm but when you use a SUP item everyday and another millions of people do the same the problem escalate in huge proportions. Just as an example let's say that an average person go for groceries one per week and for packaging her / his groceries use at least 5 bags, that is equal to a 20 bags per month and 240 per year just for one person and then if that is multiplied for the millions of people that use plastic bag, you can easily realize of the dimensions of the problem. For instance, in Oman, a country with around 5 million people (World Data, 2017), It consumes over 40 million plastic bags per year just in Malls, without including plastic bag use in other facilities according to the ESO (Community Affairs and Environmental Awareness at the Environment Society of Oman) which is already a significant amount for a small country.

We have a plastic addiction. Worldwide society’s overreliance on SUP and lack of sustainable waste management solutions make SUP prone to end up as environmental pollution (UN Environment, 2018). Our current lifestyle drives to a throw-away society where the norm is to produce and consume items that are used just once or for a short period of time and then they are discarded. To worsen the problem, most SUP are easily accessible and free, which creates more demand. This is causing a huge strain for the urban and natural environment, animals and human health, and the economic and social spheres.

The Impacts
Plastic pollution can be found in any part of the planet. It accumulates in mainlands, deserts, jungles, shorelines, and water bodies. It has also been found on remote uninhabited islands and in the ocean depths (Barnes et al., 2009). Plastic pollution threatens the life of animals (marine life, wildlife, and livestock) that suffer from ingestion, entanglement, or habitat degradation (WWF, 2019). To illustrate, marine species such as turtles, mistaken plastic bags for jellyfish and other food and Albatrosses birds mistake tiny plastic pieces for food and feed them to chicks, which die of starvation or ruptured organs.(National Geographic Society, 2019). When plastic is ingested by animals, they are also consuming the toxins attached to it, passing the pollution and toxicity to the human food chains (Ruxton, J. & Leipzig , A., 2016), Toxic chemicals can be also absorbed through items that are used on a daily basis such as plastic bottles, food packaging, and personal care items (Brighty et al., 2017). In other words, plastic toxins are in our food and drinks. We are eating our own garbage. What we throw into the environment, we are getting it back.
Bird entangle in a plastic bag
Photo by John Cancalosi on National Geographic

Fish caught by a plastic bag.
Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash

Plastic and mask pollution on the ocean 
Photo by Opération Mer Propre on

The incineration of plastics as a "waste management process" and as a mean for people in low-income countries for cooking and heating, release toxic emissions and harmful gases (UN Environment, 2018) Single-use plastic bags also contribute to public health hazards by creating artificial pools that serve as potential breeding grounds for mosquitoes and pests (Clapp & Swanston, 2009).
Besides the environmental and health impacts, plastic pollution has socio-economic implications especially in the tourism sector due to aesthetic disturbance and the cost of clean-up and waste management (UN Environment, 2018). Marine plastic debris not only affects tourism but also marine trade, and fishery (WWF, 2019). In urban environments plastic pollution can cause flooding by clogging sewers and blocking drains causing flooding and exasperating natural disasters (Tough, 2007).

Alternatives and solutions
“The planet doesn't need money, it needs behavioral change” - Sonam Wangchuk, Engineer, Innovator and Education Reformist

All this information can be overwhelming . However, there are actions and solutions that can be implemented in different spheres of society to avoid the leakage of plastic to the environment, such as individual action and governmental strategies. To be more concrete we need a behavioral change in our society. The following are some ideas and suggestions that can be taken into consideration to create a change, work collectively to save our planet, our home, from being drowned by plastic pollution.

Cloth grocery bags. Source: Photo on Freepik

Refilling a reusable bottle. Photo Source by Bluewater Globe on Unsplash

Individual actions 
Being aware of the situation and of your plastic consumption is the first step to start to make changes. Small actions lead to huge impacts. Changing our behaviour, especially the ones that are so rooted in our lifestyle is not easy but is not impossible either and will bring positive impacts to your well being and to the planet.Incorporating the 5Rs to your life can help in your journey to reduce your plastic consumption. Refuse as much as you can SUP, for example you can say not to the straws that come with the drinks; Reduce the use of plastic, and search for free plastic options; Reuse plastic products that you already have. Repurpose & Repair, give a second life to plastic items and enlarge their lifespan, taking something that you are no longer using and alter for another practical use, or repairing a broken goods.The last resource is Recycle. Most of the people think that the plastic can easily be recycled. However, just 9% of all the whole plastic produced is actually recycled and not all plastic can be recycled (UN Environment, 2018). Recycling can be a part of the solution but also have some drawbacks. SUP is not easy to recycle, because it costs more money and energy to recycle rather than produce new ones. When it is recycled, it actually downcycled meaning that the quality is lower. Not just that, according to Ellen MacArthur foundation (Plummer, 2018) it is also the way SUP is produced, where recyclable and non-recyclable plastic parts are combined and they can not easily separate. Furthermore, recycling plastic doesn't address the toxicity issues associated with this material (Terry, 2012).
Changes some habits can help to reduce que quantity of plastic that goes to the environment, the follow are some practical and easy changes that everyone can implemented:
  • Use reusable shopping bags or a backpacks for carrying your groceries or shopping, also you can reuse plastic bags that you already have at home. The idea is not to get new plastic bags.
  • Bring your own coffee cup and water bottle for take away drinks that can easily be refilled. Coffee paper cups are coated with plastic film, which make it difficult to recycle, additionally the film plastic releases toxins in contact to hot drinks. Also you can opt “ for here” option, to drink a coffee in regular cups.
  • Reduce the consumption of bottled plastic water, sodas and juices. Opt for glass bottles.
  • When buying a product try to check for the ones that are packed in carton or glass.
  • Switch to bar soap instead of liquid soap.
  • Buy items in bulk to reduce plastic packaging, also buy bread that comes in either paper bags or no bags.
  • Bring your own cutlery and your container for take-out food and leftovers.
  • Avoid straws, in most cases they are not necessary and are used just for a short while.
  • Clean with vinegar and water. You are avoiding plastic packaging and toxic chemical
  • Spread the word and share your experience with more people
  • Support and initiate local initiatives like clean-ups and awareness campaigns
*Due to corona restrictions some alternatives are no longer so feasible or easy to implement.

Collective actions
There is a collective awakening about plastic pollution. Change makers around the world, people like you or like me, are working hard to raise awareness about this issue and to inform citizens. They are taking actions ranging from beach clean-ups, workshops in neighborhoods and schools, bloggers that give ideas to have plastic free life to political lobbying and mass media campaigns. Additionally, start-ups come up with innovative ideas in both, designing products made of the plastic waste and creating products that replace plastic. Besides, scientists and scholars have been researching new ways to tackle this problem, new material materials that can replace plastic or new forms of plastic that can be less harmful for the environment (Plummer, 2018), as well ways to recycle them and processed to clean the oceans.

Governmental/ institutional actions: Governments should take this issue more seriously and implement more effectives strategies.

The root of the problem is the overconsumption of SUP and the low cost overproduction. In order, to change this the government should work together with organizations, the commercial sector and the industry. Different measures to restrict or eliminate the production and consumption of SUP are suggested.

There are tools to change people‘s behavior discouraging the use of SUP (Homonoff et al, 2018) before it enters the environment. The most common and effective ones are: Ban, taxation, and economical instruments, for instance paying for a plastic bag in the supermarkets. This works under the concept of “loss aversion”. Often, the small charges for plastic bags are enough to make people feel a loss that they can choose to avoid can influence their behavior. (Schwartz, 2020). 

Voluntary Agreements - They are arrangements and negotiations between the government, the producers, and retailers and social partner organisations to facilitate voluntary action to reduce SUP, (UN Environment, 2018, Tough, 2007;) and to encourage a behavioral change. The most common voluntary agreements work as an economic discouraging tool for the consumer. Such as the non-distribution of plastic bags and making available alternatives.
Social Awareness and Public Pressure These strategies can result in gradual behavioral changes and furthermore in implementation of laws. According to the UN environment (2018) awareness campaigns are designed to persuade and educate in topics such as proper disposal, reuse, recycling, and most important the responsible use and impacts of SUP. These strategies should serve as a support for measures such as taxation and banning to reinforce and make them more effective.

The above strategies tackle the problem from the root: The consumption. However, there is a lot of plastic everyday that is leaking to the environment due to the lack of proper waste management. It is necessary also to tackle the final disposition of this material with investment in the improvement and implementation of proper solid waste management and recycling facilities.

Actually changing the way we consume, making small adjustments to our daily habits make a huge difference, and when you start others will follow, then when small action comes together the impact is tremendous. There is when we can start to push companies and the government to introduce big changes. We have also to rely on scientific research to improve processes and to verify that the new implementations are working. Every change starts for ourselves. Every action counts.



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