The world is drowning in plastic, and single-use packaging is a big part of the reason why. Throwaway wrappers and containers are practically impossible to avoid in our convenience-obsessed times. From pasta to orange juice, nearly every item of food and drink we purchase today comes encased in some form of plastic designed to be used once, then cast aside.
Though recycling is often touted as a way out of this morass, the reality is far less rosy. Food and beverage packaging can employ dozens of plastics, including expanded polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, which is verboten in most municipal curbside programs. Some forms of packaging—think Capri Sun pouches or milk cartons—combine one or more types of plastic with disparate materials like foil and paper, which are difficult if not impossible to separate once melded together.
Of the more than 14.5 million tons of single-use plastic generated by Americans in 2018, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, just 8.5 percent was recycled. The vast majority was landfilled, incinerated, or left to litter streets, clog up waterways and poison marine life. Markets for recyclables are growing scarcer too, now that China, once the world’s biggest customer for used plastic, has banned imports of most forms of scrap material, creating what some experts have dubbed a “global crisis in plastic waste,” with few options but to burn or bury it.