The Truth About Single-Use Plastic

Betsy Teutsch, for the Shuttle

“Single-use plastic” = the biggest lie ever. Plastic marketers say “single use” to control the conversation. What they really mean is, “Plastic is so cheap, customers can afford to use it once and toss it.” The truth is that with some effort, most plastic can be reused dozens of times.

Plastic has two sinister traits. First, it is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel, thereby contributing directly to global warming. Secondly, it breaks into microplastics and heavily pollutes land and sea, endangering our ecosystems. Land, sea, and air are all laden with plastic waste.

This cuts close to home: The controversial Chester County Mariner East Pipeline ships liquified natural gas for export to Europe for plastic manufacturing. Opposition to this polluting project swept a new State Representative, Danielle Friel Otten, into office in Harrisburg.

We need to reduce plastic consumption wherever and however possible, develop eco-responsible alternatives and build infrastructure for plastic reuse — all at the same time!

It’s important to understand how we got to this point. Plastic is superior to the products it has replaced. No discussion of plastic reduction should overlook that plastic is one of the 20th century’s greatest innovations, as it does offer:

  • waterproofing
  • lower weight, replacing heavier glass and reducing the energy consumed in product transportation 
  • unbreakable packaging, a huge benefit over glass
  • sturdiness — you can puncture it, but it rarely tears, like cellophane 
  • cheap sanitary protection from pathogens, increasing consumer safety and extending shelf life (everyone mocks shrink wrapping, but it radically decreases product loss)
  • low cost — in fact, it’s super cheap
  • transparency or color options, and it can be easily printed on.

Given all these characteristics, plastic is not going away any time soon. Hence, those concerned about plastic pollution — the entire EU, a host of African countries states, cities, eco-minded businesses, and households — are coming up with strategies to reduce wasteful plastic consumption. The Weavers Way Plastic Reduction Task Force has hosted huge crowds that have brainstormed many great ideas. Here are a few of mine:

  1. What if each of our stores offered its most popular fresh items both pre-packaged and in open containers, allowing people to bring their own containers? We already sell tofu loose, and it seems to work fine. This is not allowed for prepared foods, due to cross-contamination concerns, but is acceptable for foods that will be cooked. For example, just today, I purchased some grated cheese. My Co-op choices were bad vs. bad: a hanging resealable plastic bag or a plastic deli container. If we offer an open bin of grated cheese, I could put it in my own tared container with a sanitary utensil.
  2. To reuse plastic commercially, it needs to be sanitized. This is not especially high-tech. Could Weavers Way accept heavy plastic take-out and deli containers, sanitize them, and offer them for reuse? We are doing that with glass jars already. (We would need to designate what is sanitizable; many deli containers cannot withstand heat.)
  3. Always carry a small resealable bag with plastic utensils so you can decline a new set when you buy food.
  4. I stash plenty of different-sized resealable bags in my purse, pockets and bags so they are always handy. You can also do this with grocery store plastic bags, which fold up to next-to-nothing. Use them for restaurant leftovers and store purchases.
  5. I rarely take the toiletries from hotels, since I use my own, but I always grab those shower caps they provide. They work way better than cling wrap, and you can reuse ‘em dozens of times. I just throw mine in the washing machine (though not the dryer, of course).
  6. Join the Weavers Way Environment Committee’s Bottle Bricking Brigade. We are making bricks from bottles stuffed with plastic waste for Houston School’s pollinator garden structure. This keeps all that plastic out of the waste stream and upcycles it into construction material.

Plastic respect and plastic reduction are not at odds. We can appreciate all plastic does to actually reduce our foods’ carbon footprints while committing ourselves to decreasing plastic pollution. Go ahead, wash your resealable bags and reuse them. Your family might make fun of you, but the planet will say thanks.

Betsy Teutsch is the author of the upcoming “100 Under $100: Tools for Reducing Postharvest Food Losses.” Email her at for Bottle Brick instructions.