March 22, 2019 Sustainability No Comments

What is Single-Use Plastics Anyway?

“Single-use” is The Collins Dictionary 2018 word of the year.  A popular definition and one in the 2018 UN Environment report defines single-use plastics as “plastic intended to be used only once before they are thrown away or recycled.”   The inference is single-use plastic s items can be eliminated and/or easily substituted with a reusable alternative.   The broad definition potentially encompasses a wide range of items and oft times leads to an anti-plastic narrative.   The truer target may be narrower in scope.  Let’s look at what the single-use is likely not meant to encompass in terms of plastics. 

Help in transport:  If a package helps the product be transported multiple times from one place to another and consequently touched in multiple destinations, it is likely not considered single-use.   A package of some kind is needed.   For example, the bread maker needs to package their bread in a bag for multiple transportations.   The bread travels from the manufacturer to a distribution center to a grocer to a consumer who in turns brings the bagged bread home.    The originator of the package (the bread maker) and the end use destination of the package (the consumer) are unrelated requiring multiple transportations in the manufacture to consumption chain.

Help defines contents:   If a package helps define the product enclosed in terms of safety, how to use,   ingredients/nutritionals, then the package is an integral part of the product itself.  The package as a means of communication creates a difficult challenge to overcome without the package.  When the package is a critical part of the contents, it is likely not considered single-use.

Helps in storage at end destination:     If a package aids in storage and reuse of enclosed contents at its final destination, it is likely not considered single-use.   A package of some kind is needed for storage for future use.    

Help protect:  In the end, packages are meant to first and foremost protect the product until use.  If the enclosed product is compromised or destroyed prior to use, the environmental impact is far worse than the package itself.   If the package helps protect the product, it is likely not considered single- use. 

If one or more of the “helps” above exist with no viable reusable alternative, the likelihood is the plastic item is not considered single-use.  Here are some examples to consider using the above criteria.

                Plastic take-out grocery bags:  Take-out grocery bags generally do not help define the contents nor help in storage at home.   The bags do help in transport and protection of the groceries in getting home safely but a reusable bag is an easy substitute albeit potentially inconvenient for some.  Because the grocery bag has a viable alternative t to the “helps” it addresses, it is likely considered single-use.

                Plastic Straws:  Plastic strawsdo not help define the contents, do not help in transport of anything, do not help in storage at home, do not help protect anything and have a viable alternative in the form of reusable straws albeit inconvenient to some.    Plastic straws are likely considered single-use.

                Custom bread bag:   Custom bread bags are made and printed to specification.    The custom bread bag helps in transportation, helps to define the product (nutritionals etc), helps in storage at home and helps protect the product.   While the use of different materials (compostable, recycled content, bio-plastics etc) to make the package is something to consider for each manufacturer, brand and consumer, the need for custom bread bags are likely not considered single –use.

                Plastic Water Bottles:  Plastic water bottles do help in transport, storage at end destination and protects the product.   However, reusable water bottles are a viable alternative for everyday use.  When plastic water bottles replace all water container consumption, they are likely viewed as single-use.  When plastic water bottles are used as a convenience in an on-the-go way, they can likely be seen as not single-use.       

                Reclosable Plastic Bags  Plastic bags made with a reclosable feature makes it a reusable bag and likely not seen as single-use.

While by no means an absolute, the factors above may help sort out what may and may not be considered single-use plastics.    We at Clear View Bag aim to help re-shape plastic packaging increasingly away from single- use and toward reusable constructions and more sustainable materials.  We seek to expose our clients to options of more sustainable material in terms of origins (bioplastics) and end destinations (compost and recycling).   For a complete list of our sustainability initiatives including new sustainable materials we stock, visit   http://www.clearviewbag.com/sustainability/.

Thanks for reading!

Trent Romer

Note:  The background for the information in this blog came from edX course “Sustainable Packaging in a Circular Economy” Delft University of Technology  

Written by David Pugliese