More plastic has moved through American kitchens since the pandemic began than is usual, both because people are ordering food in more often—and racking up stacks of takeout containers, plastic utensils, and straws in the process—and because people are doing more home cooking—and buying more ingredients tucked into clamshells and swathed in plastic wrap to do so. In aggregate, initial reports suggest that these incidental tweaks are really adding up. Jonathan Levy, a recycling and waste reduction expert based in Los Angeles, says that he and his colleagues “have seen an almost doubling of the amount of trash and recycling generated by homes” over the past year, much of which appears to be plastic food packaging or serviceware.
As worrying as that spike may be, it may be easy for many of us to write off because we’re used to the ubiquity of plastic products in our kitchens. Many of us barely think about them at all, except maybe when we toss them into the trash or recycling, implicitly trusting waste management systems to handle them appropriately.
But in recent years a slew of research and reporting, especially deep-dives by NPR and John Oliver’s team at Last Week Tonight, has made it increasingly clear that America isn’t nearly as good at managing plastic waste as many people believe—and the environmental and public health costs of producing, using, and discarding plastics may be higher than most of us ever imagined. In fact, the burdens associated with the single-use plastics are so high relative to the amount of time consumers actually utilize them that the United Nations, among other groups, actually considered their use to constitute one of the greatest eco crises facing the world long before the advent of COVID-19 ramped up demand for them.
“Once people get a real sense of the problems associated with single-use plastics, it’s hard for most of them to not want to do something about it,” says Eve Fox of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics. However, it’s often difficult for folks to figure out where to start: Should they focus more effort on cutting back on, or finding replacements for, some items over others? How can they actually figure out what the best replacement for a plastic item is? What should they do if they can’t find a viable alternative for a plastic item that suits their particular needs?
All of the experts I consulted for this article agreed that there’s no universal set of best practices to address the issue. But there’s a simple exercise we can all use to get a firm grip on the role single-use plastics play in our kitchens, and the right steps for each of us to take to cut down on plastic usage, or the costs tied to it, that fit our individual needs and circumstances.
What Is a "Single-Use Plastic"?
Manufacturers rarely slap labels on plastic packaging, utensils, and other items that clearly indicate that people should discard them after one use. Some items, like the plastic wrap around the caps of unopened bottles or individual condiment packets, are clearly only meant to be used once and then discarded, Levy notes. But deli and takeout containers may seem re-usable; some people discard them along with the rest of their takeout packaging, while others squirrel them away as storage, often using them to save leftovers or organize loose raw ingredients.
“There is no single law governing what counts as a single-use plastic,” explains Alex Truelove of the United States Public Interest Research Groups’ Zero Waste Campaign. But there is enough overlap in policy proposals that have tried to define the term to offer a core definition: Any item that most users recycle or throw out after only one use. Truelove adds that, when manufacturers make products that don’t hold up well to wear and tear, it’s a sign that their designers only had one-time uses in mind. So even though people may reuse items like deli containers, their design and common usage place them firmly under the single-use umbrella.
A few items we don’t register as plastics are included in this category, like some paper cups and thin cardboard food containers coated with thin layers of plastic to keep liquid(y) contents from seeping into them, creating a soggy mess. Although they’re not composed primarily of plastic, they’re treated like it within waste processing systems because it’s usually cost-prohibitive to separate their plastic and paper components.
Single-use plastics, in other words, are everywhere in modern kitchens.
Plastic: Cheap to Make, Hard to Get Rid of
Most plastics are derived from fossil fuels like crude oil. Each particular type of plastic and item goes through a different manufacturing process, which uses different chemical additives to give them specific properties. But researchers estimate that, overall, plastic production makes up about one percent of America’s greenhouse gas emissions—and generates numerous chemical byproducts. The low density, high durability, and malleability of plastics make them incredibly useful for everything from automotive safety and fuel efficiency to space travel and exploration.
Plastics started making their way into American kitchens in the mid-20th century, often as cheap and sturdy alternatives to easily-damaged glass, metal, or wood items. Durable items like Tupperware containers, first introduced in 1946, helped many families cut down on food waste for years on end, arguably justifying the initial cost of their creation through their significant, long-term benefits. “My mother is still using Tupperware she got in the ‘70s, and it still works great,” says Darby Hoover, a plastics expert at the National Resources Defense Council.
As plastics manufacturing developed in the following decades, some food producers and retailers started replacing their wood, glass, metal, and paper packaging for similarly logical, even noble reasons: Plastic is lighter, so it costs less—and requires less fuel, and so produces fewer carbon emissions—to transport. Shrink wrapping foods in plastic extends their shelf lives, thereby reducing food waste.
Many other manufacturers, however, simply preyed on the very American obsession with sterility and fear of food contamination from the mid-20th century on to sell retailers and consumers on the supposed health-protecting wonders of cheap, individual- and single-use plastic plates, straws, and utensils. Others marketed single-use plastic packaging and other items as low-cost, easy-to-use products, playing to American convenience culture.
Unfortunately, plastics manufacturers either did not recognize, failed to effectively communicate, or simply ignored the holistic effects of plastic production and waste on the environment.
The plastics industry has for decades attempted to convince people that single-use plastics are fine because consumers can recycle them after briefly using them, functionally extending their lifespan and cutting down on the need for new plastic production. This was and is disingenuous. In theory, we can melt most plastics down into raw material. In practice, the process is so resource-intensive for many forms of plastic, and the resulting materials are so degraded, that it's more economically feasible—and at times more eco-friendly—to just toss the original plastic product into a landfill.
Most American cities and towns can only reliably process polyethylene terephthalate (#1 in the recycling arrows on the bottom of products, usually used for beverage bottles) and high-density polyethylene (#2, usually used for milk jugs and soap bottles). Some facilities can process polypropylene (#5, what many takeout and deli containers are made of)—but don’t count on it. Many recycling plants automate item sorting using machines that can’t process certain shapes or colors, even if the plastic can be recycled. If a batch of plastic recycling is contaminated by something a machine cannot sort, by a type of plastic that the plant cannot process, or, in some cases, by food residue or other muck and grime, there’s a good chance the entire batch will just get trashed.
Most experts estimate that just under 10 percent of all plastics ever produced have actually been recycled into new materials. In most cases, these items don’t turn into, say, new plastic bottles or deli containers; instead, they get downcycled into plastic fibers used inside materials like carpeting and insulation foam. Even if the recycled material can be used to produce similar products, it has to be supplemented by a certain amount of newly-manufactured plastics. In many cases, it’s actually cheaper for manufacturers to just use all-new plastics than recycled materials for their items—especially as crude oil prices drop.
In landfills, plastics take between 10 and 500 years (or longer) to degrade, if they don’t get tossed into a big incinerator and release toxic fumes. But degradation for plastics just means breaking into smaller bits, which can be easily dispersed in the wider environment, where they are incredibly hard to recover, especially when they break down into microscopic pieces and sink into waterways. Even worse, as they break down, many plastics emit methane, compounding their effects on climate change.
Plastic bits, big and small, kill millions of animals every year by entangling or strangling them, accumulating in their digestive tracts and causing issues like starvation, or poisoning them by leaking out chemical additives. These chemicals can also leak into soil and water, or into humans when we consume microplastics in our environment. And they have spread all over. “Anytime we look for plastics, anywhere in our environment, we seem to find them,” Fox notes.
No one knows how harmful these chemicals are to humans, thanks to their diversity and a lack of detailed study. “It’s actually impossible to design an experiment comparing people who have never been exposed to plastics with those who have been for health outcomes,” Truelove explains. But many of these chemicals are known health-hazards.
The Problem With Single-Use Plastics
This, Truelove explains, is why environmental and public health activists and researchers are especially concerned about single-use plastics: Manufacturers pour resources into them; people often only use them for a few minutes or days—by design; and then they sometimes get turned into new (but different) materials, but more often than not they end up as environmental hazards.
“And anything that’s single-use is particularly resource-intensive because as soon as you throw it away, you have to make it again,” Truelove adds.
What’s more, most experts estimate that between 40 and 50 percent of all plastics ever produced have been funneled into single-use products. These make up a huge portion of the 185 pounds of plastic that the average American discards every year, which dominates municipal landfills. And plastic production is set to grow substantially in the near future, with single-use plastics a huge part of that growth. No one has specifically calculated how many of these items flow into, or how much plastic waste flows out of, kitchens. But, broadly, Hoover says, we know that “most single-use plastics are used for some type of packaging—often for food—or serviceware like plastic utensils.” Food packaging and serviceware are also among the most common single-use plastics found during beach cleanups—alongside, cigarette butts, which contain bits of plastic.
Some single-use plastic products are likely more problematic than others, but Truelove notes that it’s hard to rank the risks associated with particular items in your kitchen, as “there are different ways to measure ‘problematic,’ and so rankings might ultimately just be opinions.”
For example, environmental groups like the World Wildlife Fund often argue that plastic straws are uniquely harmful because they can almost never be recycled and are so lightweight that they’re often carried by the wind out of trash bins or landfills into the environment, where they rapidly break down into microplastics. But from a recycling center’s perspective, Truelove points out, plastic bags and wraps are the most irksome materials, as they often clog sorting machines, creating costly maintenance work and spoiling entire batches of recycling. Meanwhile, from a public health perspective Styrofoam and similar plastics seem to leach toxins in a uniquely prolific way. And a plastic that is generally more durable, recyclable, and overall safe might get shaped, colored, or treated in ways that make a particular item uniquely problematic for recyclers, or otherwise toxic.
“I would not create a hierarchy of items in terms of how problematic they are,” says Hoover.
Reusing Plastics: The Pros and Cons
Even people who aren’t aware of the environmental and health risks associated with discarding single-use plastics often try to cut down on plastic waste or save money through reuse. Most often, folks turn deli and takeout containers into long-term food storage items. Some people even wash zip-top bags and cling wrap to get a few more uses out of them. “That instinct is right on,” Truelove says, as any addition to a product’s life can offset its overall environmental costs.
Although they rarely go out of their way to recommend this, some plastics industry insiders have endorsed the reuse of any and every product, from single-use plastic containers to utensils, so long as they are properly washed and dried. Yet activists and researchers like Fox and Hoover worry that the repeated use of flimsy single-use plastic items creates or exacerbates the risk of toxic chemical additives leaching into food.
Hoover acknowledges that the jury is still out about which chemicals are most likely to leak out of each type of plastic, in what specific contexts, and how quickly or to what extent. But even if we had more, and more definitive, studies on these topics—and on the specific health effects of each additive commonly found in plastics at specific concentrations and over time—that wouldn't be especially useful to consumers on the ground. Manufacturers and retailers rarely label all of the chemicals contained in a given piece of plastic, and Hoover points out that even two different items made of the same type of plastic may contain radically different additives.
Generally speaking, Hoover says items made using plastics #2 and #5 “tend to contain fewer chemicals that might leach into food, although it’s a little iffy.” She and others suggest sticking to those if you want to reuse single-use plastic items, especially if they’ll likely be in long-term contact with food. But once a container gets cloudy, cracked, warped, or otherwise weathered, you should probably stop using it; they’re all signs that the plastic is starting to degrade, and is therefore likely at higher risk of leaching something into your food. (Cracks can also harbor unsafe bacteria.) Heat degrades many plastics as well, so activists caution against reusing any single-use item after it’s been subjected to high heat, or heating items inside or under plastics that aren’t explicitly made to withstand high temperatures. Some activists don’t even like to leave single-use plastics in the sun too long for fear of degradation and contamination risks.
Fox also advises against reusing any single-use plastic item with moving parts, like a flex joint or a bottle cap. There is always a minor but notable risk that, when used over and over, these parts will slowly start to shed microplastic bits because of physical wear and tear.
Some single-use plastic items, like rip-away wrappers and rip-open condiment packets, just don’t lend themselves to reuse in any context. (Granted, some people find ways of upcycling these throwaway items into, say, crafting supplies—repurposing rather than reusing them in a way that avoids generating waste.)
And no matter how you as a consumer reuse or repurpose a given single-use plastic, Fox points out, in many cases you weren’t the real buyer of that plastic. The food producer, store, or restaurant that threw that plastic packaging or serviceware at you as an incidental was. These actors usually can’t reuse or repurpose the plastics they send into the world, and so will just demand ever more.
Reducing Plastic Use: Pros and Cons
In addition to reusing or repurposing single-use plastic items, many folks attempt to reduce the amount of plastic products that flow through their lives. This usually involves avoiding things they don’t need—for example, requesting no plastic utensils in takeout or delivery orders, or avoiding individually-wrapped vegetables or dish soap bottles and buying loose vegetables or hard or powdered soaps in paper containers.
It often also involves finding reusable alternatives for useful single-use plastic items. By now, most consumers are familiar with reusable bags, replacements for plastic shopping bags made out of natural or synthetic fibers—or even just more durable plastic. Over the past few years, many have also learned about dozens of alternatives to plastic straws, made of everything from paper to pasta to metal to silicone. But if you go looking for it, you can actually find a reusable replacement for almost every single-use plastic item in your kitchen: Beeswax covers to replace plastic cling wrap; soft silicon pouches to replace zip-top bags; 100% paper or plant-based plates to replace plastic plates; and even sponges made with wood fibers.
Some waste reduction proponents also advocate overarching behavioral changes: Cooking more and ordering out less to cut down on plastic container accumulation, for example, or shopping at farmer’s markets or bulk bins whenever possible to avoid the default on-the-shelf plastic packaging. Some even avoid entire categories of food—e.g., if berries are only available in single-use clamshells in their area, and they know these containers almost never get recycled because their shape makes them difficult to process, they might just stop eating berries altogether.
In some cases, reduction strategies can yield notable, direct short- and long-term gains. For example, you might pay a bit up-front for a reusable bag, but if you use it consistently in a city or state that charges fees for single-use plastic or paper bags, you’ll likely save more than you spent. And while some restaurants may give you an odd look if you ask them to put your leftovers in a mason jar or tin pail you’ve brought along with you, others may be willing to give you a discount or credit for helping them cut back on plastic waste.
But these strategies may be hard to employ consistently or effectively, especially if the stock of plastic-free options at local stores changes sporadically, or if local restaurants offer, but often fail to deliver on, plastic-free options. “I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of getting takeout and clicking the box for no plastic utensils,” Truelove says, “but they still give them to you.”
And some plastic-use reduction strategies won’t work for everyone. Notably, disability rights groups have pointed out that no reusable plastic straw alternatives are viable for certain individuals who rely on cheap, light, and flexible straws to drink safely: Metal straws become a head and bite hazard, silicon is too inflexible, and bamboo straws can splinter for people with limited motor control and tremors or spasms; paper and pasta straws can get too soggy, and may become choking hazards. People who live in food deserts, which lack diverse, healthful, and affordable shopping and dining options, may not have easy access to plastic-free food options. A lack of time and resources may also make it functionally impossible for individuals in these environs to find or afford reusable single-use plastic item replacements through niche retailers online.
Even people with relatively ample resources and options who make serious, concerted efforts to reduce their single-use plastic reliance often struggle bitterly to meet their reduction goals. “Single-use plastics are often the only decision we can make,” Fox says. “And we have to eat.”
Plastic Alternatives: Pros and Cons
Apparent solutions to single-use plastic waste can actually end up doing more net environmental harm than those plastics, as well. Many companies have adopted biodegradable plastic items, made out of corn or other plant starches, because they sound like a great solution: all of the durability and flexibility of plastics with all of the uncomplicated decomposition of plants. But the production of biodegradable plastics actually requires substantial amounts of land and water for crop cultivation, as well as industrial inputs; and they only actually decompose safely in special facilities that can treat them with the right levels of heat and humidity. Because these facilities are fairly rare, most biodegradable plastics just go into landfills, where they break into microplastics like any other piece of plastic waste. “Any bioplastic that ends up in a landfill will actually have a much higher greenhouse gas footprint than the petroleum-based plastic it replaces,” says Rachel Meidl, an expert on plastic technologies at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Many other plastic replacements’ environmental impacts depend on how, and how often, people use them. Glass and metal containers actually cost more, ecologically-speaking, to create and get into consumers’ hands than single-use plastic containers. So, if someone uses a mason jar once and then forgets about it, or decides against using it and throws it away, they’ve arguably done more damage to the environment than if they’d stuck to plastics. But if they use that jar consistently, that’s an ecological win—especially because glass and metal can often be recycled repeatedly into the same products, rather than downgraded only once, so long as they’ve been well-handled and -sorted. The environmental impact equations for two alternatives for the same plastic are not always equivalent, either; you need to use a cotton bag many more times than a durable, reusable plastic bag to offset the costs of its production, for instance.
The environmental complexities associated with individual products are hard enough to parse on their own, much less to compare to other products with their own unique impact profiles. Further, these factors are often invisible to consumers—at times actively obscured by greenwashed labeling and rhetoric. In some cases, the full lifetime impacts associated with reusable products—like beeswax covers—have not actually received adequate analysis.
Apply that level of scrutiny to every single-use plastic product, and you get hundreds upon hundreds of impossibly complex options and steps to fret over endlessly. In practice, Fox says, all of these factors “make it pretty much impossible to cut single-use plastics out of your life—unless you can devote all of your time and resources to the task.” Confronting this reality can be disheartening for individuals trying to reduce waste, if not fully paralyzing.
A Methodical Approach to Reducing Plastic Use
“We don’t really encourage people to go down the rabbit hole of steps they can take to reduce their single-use plastic usage as individuals,” Fox says. Instead, she and many other activists say it’s more important to focus on pressuring companies and politicians to enact laws and policies—to create incentives and punishments—that make single-use plastics easier to spot, understand, and avoid overall. Because while consumer demand for convenient and light packaging and serviceware has played a major role in the spread of single-use plastics in our culinary lives, corporate decisions and legal frameworks arguably play a larger role.
Activists, politicians, and researchers have, for instance, proposed laws to put corporations on the hook for the costs of the environmental and health damages associated with the plastics they produce or use—their real and total price tag—to make them at least a little less attractive to everyone in the supply chain. They’ve also proposed laws that would, whenever possible, make single-use plastic options available by request only, so that they aren’t foisted on everyone as a default choice, and consumers aren’t forced to jump through hoops to avoid them. Even supply chain experts have suggested incentivizing plastic product design changes to make sure that everything produced is at least compatible with the capabilities of local recycling facilities.
But while many experts believe that it’s far more productive to focus on these sorts of upstream and systematic changes, they all agree it’s nevertheless important for individuals to make some effort to cut down on the single-use plastics in their lives—even if they may not have the ability or the options to tackle all of them. “Every marginal impact makes a difference in the long run,” Truelove notes.
The trick is just finding out how to avoid getting overwhelmed by the task, or hung up on one tricky item that might not actually play a major role in our lives. And the best way to do so, the experts I spoke to agreed, is to conduct an informal audit of your plastic usage.
“Take a good week or two to track what comes through your kitchen,” says Fox. “Noting it all will take work. But it will help you to figure out low-hanging fruit and easy alternatives.”
Hoover suggests first looking at all of the items you buy for storage or serviceware: Do you go through a ton of zip-top bags, or almost none? How about cling wrap or disposable tubs and other containers? Once you’ve identified the items you use the most, don’t spend too much time trying to rank their relative impacts. Just go through them one by one and ask why you use them. If there’s a good, practical reason—like a disability that makes plastic straws invaluable—then don’t sweat your usage. But if you believe you could do without a given item, and there’s an easily available alternative that you think you’ll readily use, resolve to make a change. Don’t try to phase out every single-use plastic on the list in one big, exhausting purge, though. Wait until you run out of a given item, then implement your new solution using the same time and energy you’d spend getting plastic replacements—provided doing so is affordable at the time.
Through this slow, methodical approach, you may discover truly cheap and clever solutions you never would have considered before—like just putting a plate or bowl over leftovers in the fridge instead of breaking out plastic or beeswax cling wrap. You will also likely find that the easiest items to phase out—usually plastic grocery bags, utensils, and wraps—are the items you get the least actual usage out of, and thus in your own specific context are the most environmentally harmful.
If you have the time and bandwidth, Hoover says, you can slowly expand your circle of scrutiny, working your way into incidental single-use plastics, which come as an unintended part of your store or restaurant purchases, and start looking for alternatives. Again, just catalogue and consider the plastics you accumulate unintentionally and how much control you have over whether you can stop. Slowly foster a habit of considering plastics in your purchasing decisions, looking for recycled plastic materials when plastic-free materials aren’t available and considering how you might be able to reuse unavoidable plastics. Meidl suggests familiarizing yourself, if you have the time and ability, with your local recycling facilities as well, and making sure that you effectively recycle all the plastics you can’t avoid or reuse yourself, but that can be put to new uses, to gradually mitigate your environmental footprint.
Talking About the Issue Can Help
As you accumulate knowledge, you can also share your insights with your community, helping others to fast-track their own auditing experiences and making local politicians and businesses aware that there’s growing demand for plastic alternatives and systemic change. “These days, we have so many opportunities for reaching out to companies and politicians; usually, if you tweet at someone you will get a reply,” Hoover says. “If something catches on in a community or online, the company or politician will be motivated to respond.” She says she knows from three decades of experience that grassroots advocacy like this can lead to real and substantial change—often far more than what advocacy organizations themselves can pressure upstream actors into.
We’ve all actually seen this play out on a massive scale in recent years, as social media outrage about the effect of plastic straw waste on beaches and marine animals has helped to push a slew of specific straw—or overall single-use plastic—bans or limits through legislatures worldwide. Granted, some of these bans failed to consider the needs of people with disabilities or left in very large loopholes. Simple lobbying by the plastics industry, claiming that single-use plastics are the safest options in a pandemic—a seemingly opportunist argument that has since been debunked—also led a number of jurisdictions to claw back recently-enacted bans or limitations. Reinstating those bans, or moving beyond easy fixes like making straws in restaurants on-demand only to address more systemic issues, may take far more time and pressure than anything we’ve seen to date. “But it’s a game of inches,” says Truelove.
Even when policies don’t work out as intended, or achieve only incremental change, they build up overall awareness that fuels not just advocacy but innovation. Entrepreneurs search for ways to meet people’s desire to cut down on waste by dreaming up, or refining, plastic waste solutions and reusable alternatives. In recent years, we’ve seen fascinating proposals for bowls made of mushrooms or seaweed, and investigations into bacteria that might eat plastic, or techniques for using plastic waste to sequester carbon from the air, offsetting its environmental impacts. Only some of these ideas will pan out. But each one that does radically expands our options as consumers.
Not everyone will be able to devote their time and energy to plastic waste reduction advocacy. Some may only have the capacity to take a couple of steps to address their own relationship with single-use plastic food items. But that, every expert I spoke to for this article stressed, is just fine.
We shouldn’t expect to be able to fully divest ourselves from plastics, given the world in which we live, and the systems we move within. “As individuals, we should just make the choices we’re able to make,” Hoover says, “and not beat ourselves up for the ones we practically can’t.”