June 2, 2023

The Most Polluting Consumer Plastics in the World: How to Reduce Your Plastic Footprint and Protect the Environment

Pinterest Icon.Instagram icon

lastic is everywhere. It can be found in our clothes, and building materials and makes up most of our everyday items, but most terrifyingly, we also find so much of it in our oceans and soil

The vast majority of plastic we use ends up dumped or in landfills. The plastic pollution resulting from all this waste is extensive and damaging not only to our environment but our health. The question then is what can we do about it?

As it happens, quite a bit. Keep reading for all the information you need on the plastic waste problem, which plastics are doing the most damage, and the plastic alternatives we can adopt to improve the problem. 

Table of  Contents

The Most Polluting Plastics in The World

You’re not imagining it, discussions about the plastic problem have grown louder each year. The reason behind this is that plastic production, especially from virgin materials, is only growing, and with it, the resulting waste and pollution.

To understand how to intervene in this plastic epidemic, we first have to understand who and what is causing the biggest issues: 

The Most Polluting Plastics

Single-use and non-recyclable plastics, because they can’t be reused, are some of the most polluting forms of plastic in our world. Things we use every day such as takeout food packaging, wet wipes, plastic grocery bags, and water bottles, are often made from non-recyclable plastics. Even when they are recyclable, they get used once and then end up in the trash. All of that plastic waste has been piling up in landfills, in dumps, and in many instances, in our oceans.

We want to put a disclaimer here though: there is no doubt that there are many instances where these single-use plastics have been needed. The medical field, especially during the pandemic, had little choice in the face of hygiene pressures. For those with disabilities, things like prepackaged food and utensils such as plastic straws are important accessibility tools. No good comes from shaming people who use plastic when needed.

Nonetheless, it’s important that we understand what the materials are that we’re surrounded with and the things that we can improve upon. These are some of the worst and most common examples of single-use plastics:

  • Polypropylene (PP): Usually a hard, molded plastic made from resin, is used to make bottle caps, microwave dishes, ice cream tubs, and single-use face masks.
  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Clear, lightweight, and very strong, PET makes up most packaging for foods and beverages, including water bottles and things like trays in biscuit packets.
  • High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): This thermoplastic polymer is made from petroleum and used in everything from shampoo bottles to freezer bags.
  • Low-Density Polyethylene (PLPE): The more flexible version of HDPE, this plastic is found in bags, food trays, and packaging film.
  • Polystyrene (PS): This is mostly used for single-use items for eating such as cutlery and cups.
  • Expanded Polystyrene (EPS): It can be used for things like insulation and construction, but this material often pops up in single-use items such as packaging or cups for hot drinks.

You might argue that many of the plastics on this list are widely recyclable but, in the US, only 5% of plastics produced in 2021 were actually recycled. PET and HDPE water bottles have higher recycling rates than others on this list, but still remain worryingly low and show that recycling initiatives alone aren’t enough to address plastic pollution.

The World’s Worst Plastic Polluters

In their brand audit report covering 2018 – 2022, Break Free From Plastic listed these businesses as the world’s worst plastic polluters:

  1. Coca-Cola
  1. Pepsi-Cola
  1. Nestlé
  1. Unilever
  1. Monadalez International

20 firms are reported to produce about 55% of the world’s plastic waste, with billions of dollars still going every year to expand plastic production. The problem isn’t going anywhere.

What is All This Plastic Doing to Our Health and Environment?

By 2050, plastic is expected to be the culprit behind 10% to 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. Most plastic begins as a fossil fuel, like petroleum, with greenhouse gas emissions released from the time it’s extracted right through refinement and manufacturing. Then, once it’s made and used, it ends up as waste that cannot degrade naturally.

Instead, as plastic breaks down, it ends up as microplastics in our water and soil. We don’t yet know what the health impact is when consumed by humans or wildlife, but it’s worrying just how pervasive plastic has become in places it was never intended to be.

In 2019, 6.1 million tons of plastic waste were found to have leaked into aquatic environments and 1.7 tons went into our oceans. Plastic floating around in water has been nick-named “plastic soup” for its appearance and is becoming shockingly common. Plastic pollution like this can endanger animals by getting them caught in binds they can’t escape or by making them ill when accidentally ingested.

When this waste is burned, it also pollutes our air. Burning plastic releases a variety of harmful gases that can cause respiratory issues and contribute to the occurrence of cancer in those exposed. The environmental and health impact of plastic pollution can’t be ignored.

The Alternatives to Using Polluting Plastics

Thankfully, there are more and more plastic alternatives being created every year to help us prevent terrible things like plastic soup from continuing to be the norm.

Simple Swaps

Eco-friendly and low-waste living all starts with simple swaps, like saying no to plastic coffee cup lids or, better yet, bringing your own cups. Eco bags, straws, water bottles, and going plastic-free with as many of your reusable items as you can are just some of the ways you can move away from plastic.

In 2019, Americans generated an average of 221kg of plastic waste per person – more than any other country in the same economic bracket. Much of the non-recyclable plastics that we accumulate are rooted in everyday, domestic practices. Things like cling film can be replaced with wax covers, plastic zipper bags with silicone ones, and plastic lunchboxes can be replaced with glass or tin (which last longer and are easier to recycle).

Wherever you can, say no to plastic, especially when it’s single use. Instead, try to invest in items that you’ll use a hundred times over.

The Benefits of Going Re-Usable and Plastic-Free

Carrying your own reusable items can often get you a discount at coffee stands and generally means you’re purchasing less single-use packaging. Over time, that not only saves you money, but it reduces the waste you’re adding to landfills and in turn, your contribution to the plastic problem.

There may also be a positive health impact from ditching plastic, not just in terms of limiting plastic pollution, but in terms of the Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals plastic may be releasing. There’s a growing body of evidence that links chemicals found in plastics to health issues such as infertility, breast cancer, and thyroid problems, among others.

More research is needed, but it’s concerning enough that if you can, pick the safer route and opt out of plastic. It’s bad for our planet so it should come as no surprise that it may also be bad for your health.

Exciting Innovations

Great thinkers are coming up with new, innovative plastic alternatives all the time. These include:

  • Bioplastics: Typically made from renewable resources such as sugarcane and corn, scientists are making bioplastics that are biodegradable and compostable. Bioplastics offer materials for commercial use that are more sustainably produced, and far safer to dispose of than normal plastic.
  • Packaging Materials: Simply getting more inventive and shifting away from non-recyclable packaging or better yet, plastic altogether, is something many brands are finding ways to enact. Using bamboo-based packaging for shipping instead of polystyrene foam is yet another change happening in the right direction.
  • Refill Options: Many companies focused on eco-friendly living are getting innovative with refills and refill subscriptions so that the number of plastic shampoo bottles used, for example, is reduced.

Actions You and Businesses Can Take to Reduce Plastic Pollution

As plastic pollution and production rise, our efforts against using these materials need to be increasing too. But who’s responsible and where do we start?

Making Changes: The Individual vs. The Collective

The reality is that no single tactic or person can eradicate plastics from use. It’s going to take multiple approaches and buy-in from as many people as possible if we’re going to reduce plastic use and waste.

On a micro level, that starts with you and your community of friends, family, and colleagues. We’ve already mentioned simple swaps you can do to reduce single-use and non-recyclable plastic use in your own life, but this is how you can share low-waste and eco-friendly living with others around you:

  • When birthdays and holidays arrive, gift items with plastic-free packaging and consider giving items that can encourage eco-friendly living, such as sustainable bottles.
  • Organize farmer’s market trips with friends and bring loads of eco bags with you so that you can share the experience of shopping plastic-free.
  • Do a plastic audit in your home or workplace to help flag areas where plastic can be eliminated or where recycling initiatives can be started.
  • Organize and join clean-ups in your neighborhood to remove plastic waste that might be polluting your environment. It’s not just beaches that need plastic removed – waste is dumped all over and often not dealt with well by overrun municipal services.
  • Start a low-waste living challenge with friends and see who can generate the least plastic waste in a month.
  • Arrange fundraising events or join one with a friend to help give money to organizations that do things like clean-ups or education for children on plastic waste.

The next step, after engaging with your immediate community, is to investigate any proposed bills or legislature in your area intended to reduce plastic waste and use. Unfortunately, government regulations shape most of what businesses and individuals deem to be fair practice when it comes to plastic, so don’t ignore the power of your vote.

Corporate Responsibility and Our Planet

The problem is that updating local and federal laws to improve the plastic problem can take years and is often blocked by lobby groups funded by the very companies causing the most damage. It’s at this point that we have to start considering how corporate responsibility plays into the issue of plastic pollution.

A 2021 report showed that 100 companies accounted for more than 90% of single-use plastic waste. There’s no doubt then that large corporations have played a huge role in creating plastic pollution and, as such, have a responsibility to help reduce it.

Incentivizing companies to change their ways, however, is tricky. Countries in Europe and Africa have found some success in banning certain single-use plastics, such as grocery bags and providing tax cuts to businesses that make sustainability changes. However, government entities aren’t the only authorities that can place pressure on corporates. We as consumers hold a certain amount of power too.

Where we spend our money makes a difference. If, for example, you have the option of choosing between a brand you know has a terrible history with plastics (such as Unilever or Coca-Cola), and a smaller, more eco-friendly brand, support the one showing more responsibility for the plastic problem. We understand though that it’s not always easy, or affordable – just do what you can when you can.

If, however, you’re in a business where there’s room for change, consider bringing up the need for a corporate social responsibility (CSR) program. We know that brands that show strong CSR tend to build a stronger image with consumers and are more able to attract hires. Done properly, CSR can be a win-win for both the company and the fight against plastic pollution.

The Plan Beyond Plastic

Keep your reusables on you, say no to plastic when you can, give low-waste living and recycling initiatives a try, and stay alert to the ways you can encourage or vote change in. 

If you've ever done a plastic cleanup, you’ll know how rewarding it can be to start the day with an area covered in plastic trash, only to slowly see it come back to life thanks to the actions of a caring group of people. That’s all we can do: slowly, but surely, remove the plastic waste from our environment and try to limit how much we add. Our health and our environment deserve better than plastic soup and pollution.