Despite increasing calls for new approaches and materials, the US remains one of the largest consumers of plastic products in the world, second only to China and leading the EU by a little less than 5%. These figures are further compounded when you consider the relative populations of these areas, with the EU containing around 100 million more citizens and China more than a billion. In addition, the US is, arguably, less motivated than many other nations to reduce its plastic consumption.
For example, the EU has made great strides in banning single-use items such as straws, glitter, and products containing microbeads as it looks to reduce plastic pellet pollution by 74% by the end of the decade. In the US, however, even nation-wide plastic bag bans have been difficult to enact, with both consumer and industry-led resistance railing against such sweeping laws.
So, if law and legislation are failing to tackle this fast-growing crisis, how can the US begin to reduce its reliance on single-use plastics? The answer, as highlighted by these plastic recycling facts, is not necessarily through better waste management and recycling, but by reducing consumption at the source. With this in mind, we’ve compiled 7 non-recycling solutions that can help reduce plastic pollution today—read on to learn more.
The Problem of Plastic Pollution
Plastic pollution is now ubiquitous, and from the largest pieces of single-use plastic sitting in landfill to the smallest microplastics floating in the ocean, its non-biodegradable nature makes it a persistent problem. It has been found in our soils at the nanoscale, as floating ocean plastics all over the world, in plants, animals, and in humans, making its way through food chains and even into the air we breathe.
It is a significant driver of the nation’s carbon footprint, and as a petroleum-based material that has impacts at all stages of the supply chain, from oil extraction to eventual product disposal, it accounts for a significant figure of greenhouse gas emissions. However, in many cases plastic is fully recyclable, and plastic pollution is being curbed to some extent by recycling systems in the US.
Unfortunately, existing infrastructure is unable to cope with the sheer amount of plastic waste generated every day, and since China’s National Sword Policy of 2018, this fact has become increasingly stark. But why are US recycling systems struggling to keep up, and why has only 9% of the plastic ever manufactured been recycled? Below, we look at these questions in more detail.
Limitations of Recycling as A Solution
While plastic recycling is an essential tool in our fight against plastic pollution, it has a number of limitations that mean it cannot hope to solve the problem alone. Firstly, there are issues of scale, and the amount of plastic consumed on a daily basis makes it impossible for recycling systems to keep up. Secondly, with a multitude of different types of plastic, existing recycling systems are forced to focus on only a handful, leaving supposedly “non-recyclable” plastics to landfill, despite the fact that in most cases they could be recycled if the infrastructure were there.
However, perhaps the most pressing issues surrounding plastic recycling lie with multi-material products and single-stream contamination. Both of these problems lead to otherwise recyclable plastics being sent to landfill, with existing systems unable to cope with material separation or material contamination at scale. In addition to these issues, recycled plastic, unlike glass or aluminum, is not infinitely recyclable, gradually degrading in quality the more times it is processed.
7 Solutions That Aren’t Recycling
With these limitations in mind, there are still ways to reduce plastic items entering the waste stream and, ultimately, plastic pollution. Below, we look at 7 solutions to the single-use plastic problem that you or your business can enact today.
1. Cut Your Disposable Plastic Consumption
Prevention is always better than a cure, and when it comes to plastic pollution, we must first focus on using less plastic to ensure that less makes its way into the environment. This means identifying the products you regularly use that are packaged in plastic, and looking for alternatives that are shipped in less damaging substitutes such as paper, glass, or aluminum.
2. Look Out for Microbeads
While the 2015 Microbead-Free Waters Act has prohibited the use of these tiny pellets in rinse-off cosmetics since 2017, there remain multiple products in circulation that still contain them. Sunscreen, for instance, is not considered a rinse-off product, and often, the biggest brands are still sneaking them into these and other cosmetics. However, today, you can easily check which of your products contain microplastics using the beatthemicrobead app, helping you to switch out those products for others that don’t contain these ready-made micropollutants.
3. Buy Second Hand
It’s not only plastic-packaging that contributes to plastic waste, but also our clothes, electronics, and other consumer goods. Buying second hand is one way to minimize the amount of new plastic that is manufactured, and giving something a new lease on life is a great way to buy into the circular economy. Of course, it’s likely that your secondhand purchases will also avoid plastic packaging—which makes the thrift store a win-win.
4. Use Microplastic Filters
While on the topic of clothing, regularly throwing your garments into the wash is one of the leading sources of microplastics in our waterways, with microfibers being shed with each cycle. The good news is that there are now ways to counteract this issue, with simple garment bags that you can place your clothes inside before adding them to the drum. In addition, you can also find microplastic filters that attach to the waste pipe of your machine, providing a more high-tech way of reducing microfiber pollution.
5. Drink Tap Water and Use a Refillable Bottle
The bottled water industry in the US is a huge polluter, with US citizens buying around 50 billion water bottles per year. This figure could be drastically cut if more people drank simple tap water or switched to refillable metal or plastic bottles combined with spring or mineral water dispensers which are gaining popularity in Europe.
6. Buy Bulk and Items by Weight
Buying in bulk can help you minimize the amount of plastic packaging you use on a per item basis, with large volumes of things such as toilet paper, soaps and shampoos, cleaning products, and even pet food, allowing you to make instant reductions. In addition, if your favorite store sells loose products that are priced by weight, you can stock up on groceries with reusable or recycled paper bags.
7. Support Legislation in Your State
While both consumers and businesses can help to reduce plastic consumption at the source, supporting wider legislation in your state can help to impose stricter guidelines for plastic use and recycling. Today, there are various programs, strategies, extended producer responsibility laws and pending legislation that can help to stem plastic manufacturing and look towards new, more easily recyclable materials that are less carbon intensive to make and, ultimately, less damaging to the environment.
While plastic remains something of a wonder material that still has a place in our society (for example within medical equipment, the construction industry, and even within clothing to some extent) our reliance on single-use plastics is a significant issue—and one that recycling alone cannot attempt to solve. However, by looking to reduce our use of plastic in as many areas as possible and by supporting extended producer responsibility programs and legislature that attempts to cut down on consumption, we can relieve some of the pressure on existing recycling infrastructure and allow capacity to expand and grow with our new, less wasteful, sustainability needs.
More information on responsible waste management for your businesses or municipality, contact RTS today.