OUR STORIES › GUIDESingle-Use Plastics 101https://www.nrdc.org/stories/single-use-plastics-101
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January 09, 2020 Courtney Lindwall
Here’s everything you need to know about the most ubiquitous (and avoidable) kind of plastic waste: the kind made to be tossed in mere minutes.
A straw with our iced coffee, a plastic bag to carry our takeout, a wrapper on a candy bar: taken individually, each seems harmless. These modern conveniences are so ubiquitous—and so quickly thrown out—that they hardly register ur minds. But single-use plastics come with a steep environmental price—one that we’ll be paying off for millennia. Our plastic addiction is having a devastating impact on our oceans, our wildlife, and our health.
Matt Rath/Chesapeake Bay Program
What Are Single-Use Plastics?
Put simply, single-use plastics are goods that are made primarily from fossil fuel–based chemicals (petrochemicals) and are meant to be disposed of right after use—often, in mere minutes. Single-use plastics are most commonly used for packaging and serviceware, such as bottles, wrappers, straws, and bags.
Though plastic—a chain of synthetic polymers, essentially—was invented in the mid-19th century, it wasn’t until the 1970s that its popularity skyrocketed. Manufacturers began replacing traditionally paper or glass staples with lighter or more durable and affordable plastic alternatives; plastic jugs replaced milk jars, for instance. Since the 1950s, 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics have been produced, and half of that in the past 15 years alone.
There are many uses for plastic that are not only reasonable but important, such as surgical gloves, or straws for people with disabilities. But these cases make up a small fraction of single-use plastic. According to a 2017 study, more than half of non-fiber plastic, which excludes synthetic fabrics like polyester and nylon, comes from plastic packaging alone, much of which is for single-use items.