The “Single-Use” Myth

For years, the discussion about plastic policy in America has centered around whether something is a “single-use” product. This is an incorrect and naive dividing line to use.

“Single-use” isn’t an accurate term. It is generally describing a product–such as a plastic food  takeout container—that is used once and then typically sent to a landfill. But it doesn’t capture the fact that some so-called single use plastics have many lives. Many plastic products are recycled into carpeting, clothing, insulation, plastic lumber, cabinets, and other goods. See some examples here.

Some plastics are more easily recycled than others. The  #1 and #2 plastics which are used in products such as water bottles, detergent containers, and milk jugs are “multiple-use” plastics.  They may be used once for each recycled “life.”

On the other hand, some plastics, e.g., polystyrene, are difficult to recycle and not commonly accepted. These “single-use” plastics are in fact single-use.

Secondly, not all “single-use” plastics have the same societal value. A styrofoam coffee cup that you throw away each morning isn’t highly valued in society. It’s simply a container that provides neither health or safety outcomes. Those cups as well as straws, packaging materials, plastic utensils, etc. can be replaced with alternative applications. A medical syringe or dressing that is used once and thrown away has a much greater value without better alternatives.