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How to give single-use plastics a second life

Plastic may be inevitable, but plastic waste is not.

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White plastic products like a spray bottle, soap dispenser, and juice bottle are shown nestled inside an outline of a pink-colored human brain. The person’s head appears on a blue background. Design by Becky Joy

Plastic often shows up where it isn’t wanted — yards, parks, waterways — and seems to grow more ubiquitous by the day despite efforts to curb its proliferation.

And yet, plastic serves an important role in our economy and quality of life: lightweight plastic parts in cars and airplanes improve transportation efficiency and reduce fuel consumption, plastic syringes and IVs are critical tools in healthcare, and plastic packaging extends the life of food so it’s less likely to spoil before it’s eaten.

The real villain, then, may not be the material itself, but rather the problem of plastic waste. The U.S. generates nearly 500 pounds of plastic waste per person per year (that’s about equivalent to the weight of a baby grand piano), much of it single-use items like disposable cups, wrappers, and shopping bags. While these products have made our lives more convenient, they’ve also rapidly piled up in landfills and oceans. Globally, more than half of the plastic produced is designed to be used once and then thrown away, according to the United Nations.

Americans are increasingly paying attention to the impact of their habits, though. In a survey, more than two-thirds of U.S. adults told Pew Research Center they believe cutting down on single-use plastics makes a big difference in helping protect the environment.

And while some of these individual actions will no doubt involve changes like investing in reusable produce bags and turning down plastic cutlery in takeout orders, another shift starts with rethinking the basic idea of single-use plastics: After all, something is only single-use if you only use it once.

Giving the plastic you consume a second, third, or fourth life can significantly lessen your environmental footprint. In fact, if just 10 to 20 percent of the plastic packaging produced today were reused, it could cut the amount of plastic waste entering the ocean in half, according to a report by the World Economic Forum. Keeping packaging in use also helps stem demand for virgin plastic and the emissions-intensive production processes required to make it.

Find everyday improvements

How you approach reuse will depend on your lifestyle and consumption habits, but here are some ideas to get started:

  1. For household cleaning products, find refillable alternatives to single-use spray bottles. Making the switch can eliminate up to 80 percent of plastic use, according to SC Johnson. The company offers a range of refill options for its popular brands like Windex, Scrubbing Bubbles, and Fantastik, including Dissolve Concentrated Pods (just add water and shake it up) and trigger-less refill bottles. Because spray triggers account for so much of the packaging of each bottle, reusing them alone could reduce as much as 400 metric tons of plastic annually.
  2. Save travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner and refill them for future trips.
  3. Rather than replacing small bottles of hand or dish soap when they run out, fill them back up with the largest refill size you can find space for.
  4. Stash away packing materials like bubble wrap to keep on hand for moving, shipping, or transporting fragile items.
  5. Repurpose clean plastic food containers as storage for small items like buttons, safety pins, nails, and elastic bands.
  6. Contact local buy-nothing groups and creative reuse centers. Shelters and community fridges also often accept clean plastic takeout containers, plates, and utensils.

Know your options

A blue flower vase appears on a light pink background. The makeshift “flowers” in the vase are actually items like plastic straws, aluminum can tabs, and a plastic fork. Design by Becky Joy

Buying products made with post-consumer recycled material is more impactful than you might realize. The more demand there is for these products, the more companies will be motivated to make them. Working with recycled materials often requires novel production methods and upfront investment in research and development, but if consumers are seeking out brands that are making strides in this area, that creates a powerful economic incentive.

Recognizing these brands is often as simple as reading a product’s label, as these will often call out whether the packaging has a percentage of recycled content. Method body wash bottles, for example, are now 80 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic, while Pledge squeeze bottles and triggers are 95 and 100 percent PCR, respectively. Overall, in just five years, SC Johnson has reduced its virgin plastic use by 22 percent and significantly scaled up its use of recycled materials, with the goal of reaching 25 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) plastic in its product packaging globally by 2025.

Purchasing products made with PCR plastic can also help divert plastic waste from the oceans, where 8-10 million metric tons of plastic waste ends up each year. Windex, which has already used 100 percent PCR in its packaging since 2015, in 2019 launched a product that uses 100 percent recovered coastal plastic sourced through its partnership with the nonprofit Plastic Bank. Thanks to that program, SC Johnson has prevented 40 million kilograms of coastal plastic — the equivalent of 2 billion single-use bottles — from entering the ocean.

Support systemic change

While our individual choices are important, we’ll need collective action to meaningfully tackle the problem of plastic pollution.

This can happen at both the hyperlocal and national level. For example, if you live in an apartment building, you can advocate for better signage and sorting systems to make it easier for your neighbors to recycle.

For larger-scale change, contact your elected officials, sign petitions, and join campaigns calling for companies to take responsibility for the plastic waste they produce. Producer responsibility legislation holds companies accountable for the environmental impact of their products and packaging, including sharing in the cost and governance of the collection and recycling infrastructure. In the past two years, support for these laws has grown in many parts of the U.S., with Maine, Oregon, Colorado, and California enacting laws and at least 16 other states introducing bills.

Ideally, these regulations will lead to better-funded recycling programs, more circular systems, and innovations in sustainable packaging. In addition to the role that corporations have to play in reducing plastic waste, consumers can do their part by supporting companies that are working to reduce their footprint by using less plastic in their packaging, prioritizing the use of post-consumer recycled materials, and making products that are designed to be reused and refilled.

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