Chances are if you’ve ever washed your hair with shampoo, cleaned laundry with detergent, or had a soft drink from a vending machine, you have encountered a single-use plastic container or bottle. Plastics have been used for years (since the 1800s) to hold various household items that we use every day, from the bathroom to the kitchen and beyond. Single-use plastic packages can be used in so many ways that it can be easy to overlook how they help hold and preserve cosmetic, food and chemical household items.
While single-use plastic packages (e.g. bottles and containers) help provide food protection, there are concerns about where these plastics go after they’ve been used. Recycling rates for single-use plastic packages across the country vary due to many factors, such as recycling infrastructure (that is, the accessibility of recycling centers). Currently, 94 percent of U.S. residents living in communities with a population of more than 125,000 have recycling programs available to them. However, there are still a significant number of plastics that are not being recycled.
Taking a look at the recycling rates for two of the most popular plastics used for food and beverage packages, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that 29.9 percent of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles and jars (think bottled juice or a mayo jar) are recycled. In addition, 30.3 percent of high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic bottles (think milk jugs or laundry detergent bottles) are recycled.
Both consumers and food and beverage companies are looking for ways to use less plastic and help increase recycling rates while continuing to provide access to the day-to-day products we depend on.
Addressing single-use plastic sustainability
To help address plastic use and recyclability, many companies have undertaken various practices to develop the next generation of packaging, including implementing light-weighting (reducing the amount of plastic needed to make a complete package) and using recycled PET plastic (rPET) and recycled HDPE (rHDPE) to produce new packaging.
Some companies are also increasing their use of bioplastics to make more sustainable packaging. Bioplastics are made from a renewable resource such as corn or sugarcane, called a bio-based resource, and in some cases can break down completely via a natural process (and are thus called biodegradable).
Additionally, companies and organizations are recovering incorrectly discarded ocean plastics to make new products such as furniture, sunglasses and clothing; and many organizations are working to discourage marine littering.
A world without single-use plastics?
If we didn’t use these plastics, the alternatives would likely be to use cans or glass. There are many products for which this switch might not work as well. For example, many food and beverage products are packaged at a volume, given product ingredient stability and are protected in ways that can only be accomplished with plastic packaging.
However, there are some products for which a switch from plastic packaging to an alternative could work well. Both canned and glass packages have been used for decades to provide product protection, transport and freshness.
Some packaging organizations have noted, however, that an increased use of these materials to make an equally strong and reliable product could lead to an increased necessity for more materials, more greenhouse gas emissions and more use of energy. Specifically, in the case of products packaged in glass, they are much heavier than those packaged in plastic or cans, and thus require more energy for transporting. Glass packages also require more energy to be recycled. Also, in many cases cans, glass and paper containers still need to be lined with plastic to ensure that the product within remains safe and the ingredients are stable.
Consumers have some container control
While product manufacturers have more work to do and recycling center access needs to be increased around the country, we as consumers can also help plastic recycling matters with a few steps:
- Take advantage of the curbside recycling programs in your neighborhood and recycle plastic packages around your home—this packaging includes food and beverage, detergent, and cosmetic containers. You can use this guide if you’re confused about what can be recycled.
- If you don’t have a curbside recycling program in your neighborhood, you may have a nearby recycling center you can visit. This website can point you in the right direction.
- When possible, use reusable plastic bottles, containers and bags.
- Try to repurpose single-use plastic packages when possible. Here are some ideas to get you started.
It appears we are not ready to be a world without plastic packaging, because such packaging helps us have access to many things we need and enjoy— like many different foods and beverages. Nevertheless, we cannot overlook the necessity to grow recycling rates and seek more methods to address packaging sustainability matters. There are some good efforts by industry, environmental organizations and consumers that are making an impact, but we look forward to seeing how much further we can go!