Imagining The Future — How We Can End Single Use Plastic

Tomás Sidenfaden
6 min readMay 4, 2017


Admit it, you’ve done it… bought a plastic bottle of water or a disposable cup of coffee and then thrown it into the trash, lid, straw and all. Maybe you had no choice. You were at a concert and they don’t let outside liquids in — and you have to stay hydrated/awake! Maybe you were about to head out on a road trip and you forgot your own container. Maybe you don’t own your own water bottle or mug. Hell, maybe you even buy those 24 packs of water bottles at the store once a week and the empties are all over your car. Regardless of the scenario, you’re playing a part in the single use plastic epidemic.

According to Jerry Powell of Resource Recycling, a lead recycling industry periodical, only about 1/3rd of plastic bottles are recycled. Americans consume approximately 3,000,000 bottles of plastic water bottles an hour. And this doesn’t account for the tens of thousands of other single use plastic products being consumed in that same hour, such as plastic lids and straws for disposable cups, other food and drink packaging and plastic bags for groceries, the latter of which are typically used for about 12 minutes, even though they will survive for thousands of years.

Speaking of surviving, much of that plastic that gets discarded ends up in our oceans, where it breaks down into microscopic pieces that are later ingested by fish that comprise the food supply of other marine life as well as our own. According to a 2014 study commissioned by 5 Gyres, a non-profit dedicated to the elimination of plastic waste, over 270,000 tons of this “microplastic” waste is polluting our oceans. These microplastics tend to gather in areas of the ocean with diminished wind and surface currents called gyres, from where the organization takes its name.

First Global Estimate of Marine Plastic Pollution, courtesy of the 5 Gyres Institute

It needn’t be like this. Single-use plastic is almost entirely about convenience. Fortunately, providers of single-use type experiences, such as those in hospitality, have in recent years made great strides in reducing the amount of unnecessary waste. Many airlines have begun recycling plastic cups and straws, hotels have been less aggressive at replacing half-full soap, shampoo and conditioner bottles, and, to a lesser extent manufacturers of food and beverages have slowly been transitioning away from the material. Nevertheless, significant progress is yet to be made and much of the effort comes down to us changing our behavior as consumers.

The biggest hurdle to reducing plastic waste in the United States has been the adoption of “single stream” recycling by municipalities and/or their citizens. Single stream recycling means you don’t have to bother sorting paper, plastic, metals, glass, wood or e-waste; it’s done by recycling centers using optical sorting — machinery that scans material as it comes across the conveyor belt at facilities to determine if it can be recycled. The adoption of this technology only truly began to become prevalent in the United States when China erected it’s “green fence” — more stringent standards for accepting recycled waste from the United States. That’s right — there was a business in taking our waste and shipping it to China for recycling. The good ole days of shipping all of our waste problems elsewhere are over.

Optical sorting doesn’t mean you can blindly discard anything you believe might be recyclable. In fact, large quantities of recyclable material still end up going into landfills because they are soiled by food or liquid waste. An entire bale of otherwise recyclable material will be discarded if part of it is found to contain food waste. Rinse it off first! Not sure what can be recycled? Check here. And note that things like plastic grocery and vegetable bags don’t fit the bill. So how do we resolve that particular problem? Bring your own bag.

Despite the obviousness of this solution, and the fact that dozens of countries around the world — from Bangladesh to Eritrea — have completely banned plastic grocery bags, the United States is still behind the curve. The chart below shows all the places plastic bag bans went into effect (green), where plastic bags are legal but a fee has been levied (blue), and all the places where those bans failed to pass local, county or state legislatures (red). This map was developed by Factory Direct Promos, a manufacturer committed to, among other products, transitioning businesses to using reusable bags. You can find the interactive version of this map here.

Green pins are where plastic bag bans are in effect. Blue pins are where plastic bag fees exist. Red pins are where plastic bag bans have failed.

One of the biggest things you can do to help reduce the amount of single use plastic waste is to lobby your local government to make recycling a priority. But you’re efforts needn’t stop there.

Things We Can Do Today

  1. Stop buying water in single-use plastic bottles. Get a sink or jug-mounted filter at home. Buy a bottle that you can leave in your car. Or even buy a separate one for your car, purse, office and home.
  2. Bring your own coffee mug to your favorite coffee vendor.
  3. Own your own straw, or stop using one. Paper and plastic alternatives exist. Check these out from 5 Gyres (including many other single-use plastic alternatives).
  4. Stop using ziplock bags and use Tupperware instead. Even plastic Tupperware is made of recyclable (and even recycled) material!
  5. Don’t use vegetable bags for vegetables you’re going to wash anyway.
  6. Rinse out and recycle your plastic food containers. These can be recycled many times when properly disposed.

Things We Can Do Tomorrow

  1. Liquids such as shampoos, soaps, detergents, cleaning products and soft drinks can be transported by tanker truck and pumped into receptacles inside stores or decentralized distribution centers, where customers can shop for them at traditional retail locations or have them delivered by self-driving vehicles.
  2. Perishable foods can be packaged in treated recyclable paper or molded pulp or delivered into your bin that fits directly into your refrigerator.
  3. Prepared foods can be made into final products during one’s visit to the market by machinery and robotics. Raw ingredients can be stored separately in readiness for a customer’s order.
  4. Coffee shops can only serve into customer or reusable mugs which are available at point of purchase. Bring your own lid and straw, or it’s built into your cup. Quick-clean machines on site can wash dirty cups and accessories.

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for the single-use plastic epidemic. Government, business, institutions and society at large all have a role to play, as do you. Modifying your own behavior will take time. Recognizing all the ways you use plastic on a daily basis and beginning to shift toward mindfulness over convenience takes work. But the easiest way to convince others is to set a strong example yourself. And convincing your peers is a critical — if not the most critical — part of moving towards a more sustainable future.

What things are you doing today to help reduce the problem of plastic waste? I am eager to update the lists above!

What could we do tomorrow?