Disposable products have a detrimental impact on the natural environment, wildlife, human health, and vulnerable communities. Single use products, from packaging to food containers, to disposable cups and cutlery, are a key contributor to the 2 billion tons of waste that humans produce every year.
That number is projected to increase 70% by 2050.
While individuals can claim some part in the problem, the authors of a new white paper argue that more responsibility resides with decision-makers and those designing and approving the systems themselves.
“We’re depleting the very life support systems that we all need to survive, simply for the supposed convenience of single-use products,” said Tamara Stark, campaigns director of Canopy, one of the authoring organizations of the joint position paper titled Single Use to Systems Change. “Doing away with disposables will not only reduce waste but help address climate change, protect forests, and stop microplastics from poisoning marine life.”
The paper points to specific actions to be taken by governments, business leaders, financial institutions and investors, in order to transform production systems, reduce the overall use of raw materials and consumption, and spur innovation.
Research has shown that the most vulnerable people in our societies bear the brunt of polluting products which contaminate local food supplies, clog landfills, and poison water and soil with toxic chemicals. Von Hernandez, global coordinator of the Break Free From Plastic (BFFP) movement, insists “it’s high time that we make corporations and industries that are driving global pollution and the climate crisis accountable for their actions. We need to see radical change in how products are delivered to people, without the use of harmful and polluting packaging.”
BFFP member organizations and individuals share the common values of environmental protection and social justice and work together through a holistic approach in order to bring about systemic change under the #breakfreefromplastic core pillars. This means tackling plastic pollution across the whole plastics value chain — from extraction to disposal — and focusing on prevention rather than cure and providing effective solutions.
Single Use Products Part Of Larger Impact On Biodiversity
The UN Convention on Biological Diversity report card rates progress against the 20 global biodiversity targets agreed in 2010 with a 2020 deadline. None of the signatories to the Aichi Biodiversity targets have achieved even one of the 20 goals to which they committed 2 decades ago. As a result, the report calls for a shift away from “business as usual” across a range of human activities.
The report card outlines 8 transitions that recognize:
- the value of biodiversity
- the need to restore the ecosystems on which all human activity depends
- the urgency of reducing the negative impacts of such activity
It also shows that governments will need to scale up national ambitions in support of the Global Biodiversity Framework and ensure that all necessary resources are mobilized and the enabling environment strengthened. Countries will need to bring biodiversity into the mainstream of decision making and factor biodiversity into policies across all economic sectors.
Plastics pollution has a direct and deadly effect on biodiversity. More than 700 species of marine animals have been found with traces of plastics in their digestive tracts. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals, and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. In fact, all turtle species have been affected by the presence of plastic in the oceans, and coral reefs have been deemed 89% more likely to develop a disease in the presence of plastic.
Plastic discarded in the ocean shows no signs of being entirely resolved. By 2050, the oceans will likely have more plastic than fish.
The weight of plastic in the ocean will also surpass the weight of fishes, meaning that the plastic content will dominate the amount of fish in multiple aspects. the smallest pieces of plastics are posing health risks that will likely arise within decades as a result of poor ecological advances made globally.
The Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the US Environmental Protection Agency to begin regulating plastics as a pollutant and is working to stop plastic pollution at the source, before it ever has a chance to reach the ocean.
Is Paper Significantly Better Than Plastics As A Single Use Product?
Paper is typically made from trees. They’re a renewable source, right? Well, a lot of paper is causing global deforestation, which is one of the major contributors to climate change and loss of wildlife habitat. Every year, 13 million hectares of forest disappear (although afforestation adds another 8 back), and the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimates that only about 22% of the world’s old growth forests remain intact.
“Paper versus plastic has always been a false choice. From the perspective of paper, it means more forests logged, destruction of our best defense against climate change, and more pollution for the frontline communities where paper mills are sited,” said Scot Quaranda, communications director for Dogwood Alliance. “After watching our environmental safeguards decimated over the last several years in the US, it is high time we and other industrialized nations take the lead on shifting to more sustainable production methods and products.”
The US is the world’s largest producer and consumer of wood products, with a rate and scale of forest destruction from logging in the Southeastern US alone estimated at 4 times that of South American rainforests. The Dogwood Alliance outlines how, along with forest destruction, large wood product manufacturing facilities release harmful pollution into the air and water, with disproportionate impacts to low income communities and people of color.
Equally as important, rural communities where America’s industrial-scale logging is concentrated are getting pummeled by back-to-back extreme flooding events. These same communities consistently show disproportionately high poverty rates, unemployment rates, and other such indicators of socioeconomic distress.
The Environmental Paper Network is another key advocate for a shift away from single use products and systems. It has launched the new website SolvingPackaging.org to help companies, lawmakers, advocates, and individuals ditch disposables and embrace sustainable packaging solutions.
To achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, and in recognition of universal human rights, the authors of “Single Use to System Change” conclude that there needs to be a collective shift in the way we design and manufacture products to avoid waste. Many of the solutions needed to make a waste-free and regenerative society already exist, but the pace and scale of change needs to escalate dramatically.
The call for an end to single use, throwaway commodities and call for transformational change to production will require new ways of consuming if end-of-use systems are to enable a truly circular economy. Commitments and effective collaboration from government, business, financial institutions and investors, the non-profit sector, and civil society will be absolutely necessary for pervasive systemic change away from single use products.
Image courtesy of Canopy