How bad is single-use plastic?

From up in the mountains to down on the seabed, plastic waste is everywhere. If we’re to end plastic pollution, the biggest contributors need to take responsibility and minimise the waste they’re creating. Find out why single-use plastic is such a problem and how to hold polluters to account.
  Published:  16 May 2022    |      2 minute read

What is single-use plastic?

Single-use plastic is plastic we use once and throw away, often as quickly as minutes, such as disposable cups at parties. Half of the plastic produced each year is single use, which is nearly the same weight as the entire human population. A lot of single-use plastic ends up in our oceans, and by 2050, there will be more plastic in our ocean than fish.

The plastic problem

Plastic pollution is any plastic which ends up in the environment. It’s incredibly harmful to all living things, as well as their habitats. It’s important to remember that plastic sticks around in the environment for ages, threatening wildlife and spreading toxins.

As much as 12 million tonnes of plastic is poured into our oceans every year. Many animal species, including large mammals and tiny zooplankton, ingest plastic mistaking it for food, causing some to die as a result.

Fish caught in ocean plastic

But it’s not only animals that suffer. Microplastics, plastics that are 5mm or smaller, are found everywhere. They are created by bigger plastic objects breaking down, or are shed from synthetic clothes, carpets and vehicle tyres. It’s estimated we could be consuming around 20 kg microplastics our lifetime, from simply eating, breathing and drinking. This is really worrying because plastic products contain chemical additives, some of which have been linked to serious health issues like infertility and cancer.

More shockingly, up to 1 person every 30 seconds dies in a low-income country as a direct result of plastic waste disposal, cleaning up the mess created by mega corporations.

What's your plastic footprint?

It’s understandable that we’d want to take individual action against the plastic waste we’re generating. Here in the UK we generate 5 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, which equals roughly 75 kg per person. But with so many single-use plastic items around, it can feel incredibly difficult, impossible even, to avoid it altogether.

We challenged 3 contenders to give up single-use plastic and discovered just how difficult it is to give it up – "it’s insidious", said one of the contenders.

Who’s responsible?

While our contenders were able to spend time planning their purchases and cover the cost of more expensive alternatives, a lot of people simply don’t have that luxury. And some single-use plastic is essential, such as plastic straws to help ensure people with certain disabilities can drink safely and independently.

The problem with focusing purely on public consumption is that it shifts the blame to individuals rather than the real culprits: the major corporations producing single-use plastic products.

Single-use plastic league table

While some of us can try and reduce our own plastic consumption, there’s no denying businesses and corporations are the most responsible for our plastic pollution crisis.

Common household names contribute significant plastic waste. The Break Free from Plastic movement conducted a brand audit of pieces of plastic waste found by volunteers across 6 continents.  This involved 11,184 volunteers from across 45 countries collecting plastic waste for one week and recording the brand of the waste.

Camera focussing directly on the ground, birds-eye view of many coca-cola plastic bottles collected together on the ground
Coca-cola plastic bottle waste
Credit: Break From Plastic Movement

Volunteers recorded their findings, exposing some of the biggest plastic waste offenders. For 3 consecutive years, Coca-Cola took the not-so-coveted first place, producing more pollution than the next two top polluters combined.

Here are the top 10 plastic polluters:

  1. Coco-Cola: 39 countries, 19,826 plastics
  2. Pepsico: 35 countries, 8,213 plastics
  3. Unilever: 30 countries, 6,079 plastics
  4. Nestlé: 30 countries, 4,149 plastics
  5. Procter & Gamble: 30 countries, 1,939 plastics
  6. Mondelez: 28 countries, 2,065 plastics
  7. Philip Morris: 26 countries, 1505 plastics
  8. Danone: 25 countries, 3,223 plastics
  9. Mars: 24 countries, 961 plastics
  10. Colgate-Palmolive: 22 countries, 941 plastics

Together, Break Free From Plastic volunteers collected a massive 330,493 pieces of plastic waste and 58% of it was branded.

We need to hold the worst plastic polluters to account. Businesses and corporations hold the fate of the world’s plastic crisis in their hands. And government needs to take action against the biggest plastic polluters.

Learn how to rid your town of single-use plastic