Single use Vs Reuseable: The truth about Sustainability. Despite their reputation as being environmentally beneficial, “reusable” products are generally less sustainable than single-use plastics throughout their lifecycle and can have greater environmental consequences.
Specifically, single-use plastic products often require less resources to produce and transport.
Ultimately, replacing other materials with plastics can boost energy efficiency, streamline material sourcing and reduce emissions and resource waste.
Single use Vs Reuseable: The truth about Sustainability
The truth about “reusable” plastic alternatives
Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs), which evaluate a given product’s environmental impact from its beginning, or ‘sourcing,’ to end-of-life, consistently find single-use plastic products produce less environmental impact than alternative materials.
A 2021 study from the University of Michigan comparing specific everyday single-use items to their reusable counterparts found that plastic options outperformed reusable versions of single-use straws, sandwich bags, wraps and cutlery, in terms of energy use, global warming potential and water consumption.
The same study also found that, over time, reusable alternatives require significantly more water due to continuous washing, while single-use plastic options use less water and energy during production.
Single-use plastic products also reduce transportation emissions thanks to their lightweight nature; in fact, substituting all plastic bottles with glass would generate increased emissions equivalent to 22 coal power plants.
Another study compared single-use plastic bags to reusable bags. It found that the environmental impacts of reusable products are often contingent upon the number of times the product is used to offset the higher environmental costs of production.
For example, an organic cotton tote must be reused over 20,000 times—or every day for 55 years—to offset its overall environmental production costs.
Paper bags have to be reused eight times to offset their environmental footprint to equal that of plastic bags’, due to the significant environmental impacts of paper pulp used in their production.
Similarly, a metal straw must be used over 150 times to equate the per-use emissions of a single-use plastic straw.
The truth is, consumers rarely use “reusable” alternatives to single-use plastics enough times to overcome their higher environmental costs.
Rethinking single-use plastics
Despite being dubbed ”single-use,” plastic bags are frequently reused for other purposes, including pet waste pickup bags, trash can liners and lunch bags.
Plastic products can also be recycled both through mechanical and advanced recycling methods, keeping waste out of the environment and contributing to an effective circular economy.
Plastic bags can be recycled using less energy, too: it takes 91 percent less energy to recycle one pound of plastic versus one pound of paper.
Paper straws cannot even be recycled and have a higher global warming potential than plastics.
Because they are capable of reducing emissions, both single-use and durable plastics are ideal for helping achieve sustainability goals, like the U.S. goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
As the federal government identifies strategies to meet its climate ambitions, it must consider the science demonstrating plastics’ viability as a tool for sustainability.
Any move by the federal government to ban or restrict the use of plastic would only result in environmental harm and higher costs, ultimately creating unintended consequences and working against initial climate goals.