What You’ve Always Wanted to Know About Single-Use Plastics:

General Information

The global plastic pollution crisis isn’t your fault; however, you can be part of the solution. For over 30 years plastic producers have misled consumers to believe their products are being effectively recycled by using triangle symbols and numbers to differentiate types of plastics. However, despite our concerted efforts to sort and recycle them, only 5% of plastics are currently being recycled in the US.

  • 95% of plastics have never been recycled.
  • The US contains 4% of the world’s population yet creates 17% of its plastic waste.
  • 40% of plastic production is single-use items that clog our landfills, pollute our air, and leak into the environment contaminating our land and water.
  • Plastic production creates tons of methane which contributes to climate change.
  • Plastics are made from fossil fuels, mostly ethane a by-product of fracking.
  • Fossil fuel companies are pushing to increase production as alternative energies such as solar and wind threaten their industry model.
  • By 2030 emissions from plastics will surpass coal-fired power plants in the US.
  • Only plastics #1, #2, and #5 can be effectively recycled (generally “downcycled” as lower-quality products that cannot be recycled again).
  • Plastic producers have misled consumers to believe their products are being recycled when most plastics end up landfilled or incinerated.
  • In the US, 76% of plastics get landfilled, 16% are burned.
  • 6x more plastic waste is incinerated in the US than is recycled. Incineration emits dioxins, heavy metals, acidic gases, and PCBs and results in the formation of toxic ash, which itself is hazardous waste to be managed.
  • As plastics break down, microplastics are released into the environment, where they circulate in the air, soil, and water.
  • Plastics contain thousands of added chemicals, many of which are known toxins, endocrine disruptors, and carcinogens such as phthalates, PFAS, benzene, toluene, heavy metals, and bisphenols. However, the bulk of the chemicals used in plastics have never been tested for safety.
  • Hazardous chemicals are released throughout plastics’ endless toxic existence.
  • At least 150 chemicals leach from PET bottles—including heavy metals like antimony, lead, and hormone disruptors like BPA. Leaching and bacteria buildup are exacerbated when plastic bottles are warmed, exposed to sunlight, and reused.
  • Recycled PET bottles leach more chemicals than those made from virgin materials.
  • Most bottled water is just repackaged tap water without additional treatment.
  • If you drink bottled water, you are consuming at least twice as many plastic particles as tap water.
  • Water filters can filter out harmful contaminants such as plastic particles, sediment, radionuclides, heavy metals, pesticides, industrial chemicals, PFAS, and Nitrates.
  • A gallon of bottled water costs $7-$8, more if you are buying smaller bottles (about $1820-$2080 a year per person).
  • Plastic pollution—from extraction to production to disposal, disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. More than 90% of the climate pollution that the plastics industry reports to the EPA occurs in just 18 communities, most of which are communities of color.
  • New York City alone spends $429 million each year to export its waste to incinerators and landfills in other states or to the Finger Lakes in upstate NY.
  • If we do not intervene, plastic production is expected to double in 20 years. This would escalate air and climate pollution, as well as plastics in the environment and our bodies.

Plastic in Your Body

  • We ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic on average per week through the food and liquids we consume.
  • Microplastics have been found in human placenta, lungs, and blood.
  • The chemicals in plastics are linked to cancer, decreased sperm count, obesity, and a host of other health issues.
  • Microwaving plastics (even those labeled “microwave safe”) leach toxic chemicals into your food.

Plastic in the Oceans

  • An estimated 8 million tons of plastic enter our oceans annually, threatening marine life and seafood quality.
  • By 2025, for every 3 pounds of fish in the ocean there will be 1 pound of plastic.

The Myth of Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastic does not decompose in the oxygen-free environment of a landfill, in the ocean, or your compost pile. It requires a 130F industrial composter. When “biodegradable” plastics mix with “regular” plastics they compromise the entire system.

Recent Success Stories

  • Mexico City has banned all single-use plastics.
  • India has recently banned several single-use plastics products.
  • The EU has banned many single-use plastics as of summer 2021.
  • California has instituted several laws aimed to reduce single-use plastic production in the state by 25% by 2032, requiring 30% of plastics to be recycled by 2028, and transferring the cost of recycling to the industry from municipalities and their taxpayers.
  • Plastic bags have been banned in NYC since 2020. Plastic straws in NYC are now being distributed on-demand and have been banned in many states.

What You Can Do:

  • Before purchasing a new product research its durability, so it does not end up in a landfill shortly after purchasing.
  • Avoid drinking bottled water at all costs! There are twice as many microplastics in bottled water as in tap water.
  • Bring your own bottle. Encourage markets to make water available for free and dispensers for beverages at a lower price than the bottled equivalent.
  • If you do not have a refillable container, purchase aluminum (which can be recycled infinite times) rather than plastic.
  • Bring a container when you plan to take food home from a restaurant. Encourage restaurants to package food in paper or aluminum containers.
  • When you order takeout, ask the restaurant not to include utensils.
  • Switch your liquid laundry detergent to concentrated detergent strips.
  • Use refillable cleaning products, such as pods, and concentrates.
  • Encourage your local supermarket to sell produce in recycled cardboard containers and to carry staples such as grains, flour, etc., in bulk.
  • Bottle Bills are great at reducing litter (70% over the past forty years). Further expansion is estimated to reduce litter by an additional 15%.
  • Producers of packaging need to pay for recycling and disposal, not taxpayers! Support the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Act, the Bottle Bill Expansion and the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act.
  • Support the “Death by Plastic” project so it can be performed in as many locations as possible until we have ended the plastics crisis.

Organizations to Follow and Support

Death by Plastic (Funeral Procession), New York City, 2021

Death by Plastic