How to reduce the impacts of single-use plastic products
Photo: UNEP / 23 Nov 2021
Single-use plastic products (SUPPs) may epitomize convenience, but with the damage they cause through production, distribution and litter, they are a major threat to environmental and human health.
The open burning of plastic waste, consumption of plastic-contaminated seafood and creation of harmful microplastics are just some reasons why SUPPs should be phased out.
Eliminating plastic product pollution is an important component of the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.
The UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP’s) recent report From Pollution to Solution shows there is currently between 75-199 million tons of plastic waste in the ocean, and in 2016 some 9-14 tons of waste entered the aquatic ecosystem. It is estimated that by 2040, this will have almost tripled to 23-37 million tons per year. Plastics are the largest, most harmful and most persistent of marine litter, accounting for at least 85 per cent of all marine waste.
But experts say, simply binning SUPPs and switching to single-use products made of other materials is not the solution.
“It is the single-use nature of products that is the most problematic for the planet, more so than the material that they’re made of,” says Claudia Giacovelli, Programme Officer of the UNEP Life Cycle Unit. “The best solution may not be the same in all societies but taking a life cycle approach can help in setting the base towards the right decision.”
So how can we phase out SUPPs and what are the alternatives?
Here are some recommendations from UNEP and the Life Cycle Initiative’s meta-analyses of life cycle assessment studies on SUPPs:
Opt for reusable alternatives
Bringing reusable bags when grocery shopping can save costs for businesses and consumers alike. Photo: Unsplash / Priscilla Du Preez
Prioritizing reusable products is not only critical for environmental health, but it can also be cost-effective. Businesses that allow consumers to bring their own bags, cups or containers can save on SUPP-associated supply and storage expenditure, while customers can avoid potentially paying extra for shopping bags or containers.
Cotton and non-woven polypropylene shopping bags are increasingly common, as are reusable and portable plastic and stainless steel bottles, cups, and tableware. Reusability is also increasingly viable for personal hygiene products, through products like silicone menstrual cups and cloth nappies.
Turn ‘single-use’ into ‘multi-use’
If unavoidable, try taking home durable tableware from restaurants for reuse. Photo: Unsplash / Dstudio Bcn
The more any product is reused, the lower its environmental impact. When consumers can’t avoid SUPPs, they should mitigate their environmental impact by reusing them when possible instead of immediately disposing of them. For example, durable single-use plastic bags, bottles, cups, tableware, and take-away food packaging can be reused or repurposed.
Single-use alternatives made of other materials are not intrinsically better, meaning that they should be reused when possible too. Such as, a paper shopping bag may need to be used four to eight times to have a lower environmental impact than one single-use plastic bag.
Design products with circularity and end-of-life consideration
Ensuring that products can be recycled efficiently after reuse is important in reducing environmental impact. Photo: Unsplash / Sigmund
Consumers should not shoulder the entire burden of decreasing the impacts of SUPP. Guided by policymaker and retailer action, products should be designed to be both lightweight and durable to maximize reusability. Production should be sustainable, such as by using renewable energy and recycled materials.
Sourcing locally and avoiding air-freight transported goods is another way to reduce the environmental impact of products over their life cycle. Finally, end-of-life impacts must be considered, so that products can be recycled or discarded in an environmentally friendly manner when they can no longer be reused.
Geographical and social context matters
Areas must develop tailored approaches to phasing out single-use products based on local contexts. Photo: Pixabay / Rita E
As more areas propose bans to SUPPs, policymakers must consider geographical and social contexts when identifying appropriate alternatives. Factors such as production requirements, expected use, reusability, likelihood of littering, local waste management infrastructure and education can all impact how environmentally friendly proposed alternatives are.
Shifting to reusable options and bolstering recycling and waste management infrastructure must take priority. In the interim period, areas with littering problems should avoid using lighter products because they are more likely to be littered, even though they are generally less resource-intensive to produce.
Ultimately, eliminating SUPPs is only one way to reduce environmental damage.
As Giacovelli notes, “Countries are encouraged to promote actions that lead to keeping resources at their highest value in the economy, by consuming less and replacing single-use products with fit-for-purpose reusable alternatives for a healthier planet.”
Contact Information: To learn more, please contact Llorenç Milà i Canals, UNEP’s Head of the Secretariat of the Life Cycle Initiative: email@example.com.
Hosted by UNEP, the Life Cycle Initiative is a public-private, multi-stakeholder partnership that enables the global use of credible life cycle knowledge by private and public decision makers.
UNEP’s “Addressing Single-use plastic products pollution, using a life cycle approach” summary report, based on the findings of a series of meta-analyses on SUPPs, was produced in response to Resolution UNEP/EA.4/R.9. A new report in the series, focused on masks, will be released in December 2021.
Source: UN Environment Programme (UNEP)
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