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What you should know about single-use plastics

Updated: Jan 27

What you should know about single-use plastics

A fast-paced economy and high-consumption lifestyle significantly contributed to the development of single-use plastics.

Scott: Hey Sofia.

Sofia: Hey Scott. I see you are drinking from an actual mug.

Scott: Yeah, I did not have time to go to the coffee shop so our engineer has kindly made me a cup of coffee. I’ve been traveling for 24 hours, and I have not slept, so please forgive me. This is…

Sofia: This is going to go great.

Scott: I have an ice coffee addiction and a bad spending problem. There’s nothing better for my mental health, than to wake up in the morning, go to my favorite coffee shop, and buy a delicious cup of cold brew coffee.

The barista asks, “Do you want room for milk or cream?” No. Just fill that little plastic cup up with as much coffee and as much ice as it’ll fit, so I can slurp it down and start my day. My coffee habit isn’t the smartest thing for me financially, but it’s also pretty bad for the environment. I go through a lot of single-use plastic coffee cups, and even when I recycle them, I feel a little guilty that I didn’t just bring a reusable cup or thermos, but how bad is my behavior really for the environment and what is the full extent of the crisis that I’m contributing to?

My name is Scott Nover and I’m the host of the Quartz Obsession Podcast, where we’re looking at how innovations—even simple ones—might change our world. This episode, single-use plastics.

Sofia, introduce yourself for us.

Sofia: Hello, Quartz Obsession listeners. I am Sofia Lotto Persio, and I am an editor at Quartz where I focus both on newsletters and news content.

Scott: And single-use plastic.

Sofia: Occasionally.

Scott: You are our expert on single use plastic, at least for this...

Sofia: For the purposes of this podcast, I am Quartz’s resident expert on single-use plastics.

Scott: Though you are not disposable in any way or recyclable.

Sofia: Irreplaceable, I think is the word you were looking for.

Scott: Right, reusable because we rely on you for a lot of different things, certainly.

Sofia: That’s true.

Scott: So Sofia, I have detailed my extensive reliance on plastic coffee cups, which fuel my addiction, my habits, my impulses, my compulsions, um, What is your guilty habit or guilty pleasure when it comes to, um, wasteful use of single-use plastic?

Sofia: I think the one that really irks me, but I do it sometimes, is when I’m kind of forced into buying a bottle of plastic because it contains some form of carbonated liquid that I suddenly feel myself in need of or in want of. This just happened the other day.

And that’s really a problem that isn’t fixable right now because most places don’t allow you to just put your reusable bottle of water underneath one of those machines where they dispense carbonated drinks. So that’s the guilty pleasure. But I would like everyone to know that I own, like, three reusable bottles, of which I think only one was bought. The others were freebies accumulated through marketing events of companies that really want you to remember their names, and two or maybe three reusable coffee cups. One of them is made of bamboo, actually, and was a parting gift from a previous workplace, which I still have. And it says, “I love you a latte,” which is great because that’s usually what I order when I get coffee.

Scott: So plastic has become such a huge part of everyday life, of society, and the economy. Can you tell us at a high level why we use plastic for just about everything?

Why do we use plastic for everything?

Sofia: Well, plastic is a great kind of material. It’s durable. It’s flexible in the sense that it can be molded into various different shapes and forms. A lot of it is heat resistant to the degrees for which we might use it for regular consumption. And most of all—oh, the other thing that is important actually is that it’s lightweight, so it’s easy to carry, not just for consumers when they go grocery shopping, but also for the transport of the goods in which plastic is packaged.

And finally, it’s extremely, extremely durable, which is both a pro and a con, maybe the biggest con of the use of plastic when it comes to single use. You’re putting products that sometimes are meant to be consumed within, you know, a couple of minutes in containers that take years, if not centuries, to decompose.

Scott: Right, here’s that imbalance between how long you actually use it and the lifespan of that plastic bottle or plastic straw or whatever it might be.

Sofia: Yeah. That’s what makes single-use plastics a particularly controversial use of a material that is both cheap to develop, but also extremely durable in its lifecycle.

Scott: And we use plastic for all sorts of things that are more durable than maybe a, you know, plastic water bottle. Is there any interesting story about how single-use plastics have developed, or any turning points where our dependence on single-use plastic kind of exploded?

What boosted our consumption of plastics?

Sofia: So when you look at how plastic developed in the last century and a half, we see that, first of all, plastic was created to replace other kinds of material that had become difficult to obtain either because of rules or just natural selection. Essentially, a lot of the plastic before the invention of synthetic plastics came from animals, like shell and horn—materials that could be as durable and as malleable—started to become more of a commonplace material in the second half of the 20th century, so in the post-war years, when a number of elements came together to create this boost in consumption. And you had on one hand chemical companies that had been looking for this new material and they were finding some promising candidates…

Scott: Right.

Sofia: And on the other hand, you had oil companies that were also increasing their production, and they were looking for something to do with some of the waste products of oil and natural gas. And so the chemical and the fossil fuel companies in the post-war years, what we see is that plastic that was initially developed to replace materials that had become rare or expensive.

Scott: Mm-hmm.

Sofia: Start to replace materials like glass, like paper, that didn’t have those kinds of problems, and particularly towards the turn of the millennium, we see a huge uptake in the production of single-use plastics made for packaging, made for bottles—the PET bottle is invented in 1973—so it’s a fairly recent phenomenon. And also those kinds of materials that we associate with takeaway food, whether it’s cutlery, whether it’s the plate or it’s the container itself.

Scott: Is there anything to blame for this? Because when you say that plastic consumption exploded in, like, the 1990s, I think of like the soda wars between Coke and Pepsi, and that seems like a very consumer-driven demand problem. Is there anything we can pinpoint?

Sofia: Specifically when you look at Western countries, I think it’s just the service industries that become a lot more developed and prominent. And single-use plastic is convenient because it’s lightweight, because it’s cheap, and so that adds to its element of convenience that fuels a lifestyle that is based on being out of the house very often, not bringing things with you from home, traveling light, and just trying to find any possible way to be as efficient as possible in our consumption, but also making spur of the moment decisions that require you to take whatever you can get instead of planning to bring something with you from home. So I would say that a fast-paced economy and lifestyle has probably contributed a lot to the development of single-use plastics because it’s a convenient way to support that kind of spur of the moment consumption.

Scott: Right. And I imagine that plastic was cheaper not only for the suppliers, but also for consumers of those goods. So Sofia, let’s back up. What is plastic? What are we actually talking about, chemically, when we talk about plastic?

What is plastic made of chemically?

Sofia: “Plastics” is a word that can be applied to any kind of material that can be formed and molded under heat and pressure. So even though we immediately think of an oil-based plastic, it’s actually a wider term that we now commonly use to refer to what are technically called synthetic plastics, because they come from these materials that are made in laboratories. But materials like tortoise shell, horn, amber, rubber, and shellac as well, can all be referred to as plastic because fundamentally they have the ability of being molded into something else when put under immense heat and pressure.

Scott: So the advent of plastic could be good for the environment in some senses, just by reducing our reliance on certain animal products like tortoise shell and rhinoceros horn, but obviously ushered in use that’s actively harmful to the environment. Is that fair?

Sofia: Yes. The lore around the creation of the plastic bag says that its inventor wanted to find a solution to the use of paper bags, which were obviously derived from cutting trees.

And so the initial development of plastic was probably well intended from a sustainability perspective. Also considering what they knew at the time, at the beginning of the 20th century, about the use of fossil fuels was not what we know now. So the fact is that it evolved over time. Properties that we’re still only learning about now, like the discovery of microplastics is fairly recent, and their effect on human health are very little understood because it’s something that we’ve only realized that it’s happening in, in the past few decades. So it’s almost a cautionary tale about innovation that sometimes the cure is worse than the initial problem.

Scott: Right, for sure. Which brings us to the elephant in the room, um, or the big garbage patch in the room, in the ocean. Why is single-use plastic bad for the environment?

What is the problem with single-use plastic?

Sofia: When you look at what happens to plastic at the end of its life, we have very little options available right now. So one option is the plastic ends up in the landfill. The second option is plastic gets recycled, and the third option is plastic just ends up dispersed in the natural environment, and that’s where you’ve got the environmental damage of plastic, which has, you know, affected our oceans, our fresh waterways, and also, of course, land in various parts of the world.

That happens because of a failure of the previous two steps. Both the failure from a producer side of things where, you know, there’s been a longstanding disinterest in figuring out what happens to the product once it’s off the shelves and in a consumer’s home. And that’s slowly changing now. And then also on the fact that recycling, while a solution that can be improved, cannot necessarily capture all of the plastic that is being produced.

And also there’s a human element in there. And by human, I mean singular individual element of: some people just simply throw away the rubbish wherever they want and not where it’s supposed to go.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: So there’s a collection of factors there at play, but what the end result is that a lot of plastic, especially single-use plastics, because it’s the one that you have with you and then you just finish your bottle, you throw it away, you finish your coffee cup, and that is down to a failure of disposing of your own waste appropriately. And some of that plastic ends up slowly decomposing, but because it takes so long to formally decompose in the environment, what happens is that over a long space of time, plastic decays, and it breaks up in these tiny particles called microplastics, that because they’re so tiny, they end up infiltrating whichever space they’re in, whether it’s the waterways or, or the land.

And specifically when they occur in water, they get ingested by animals that then we eat, and some of the water that we drink. That’s not specifically pertaining to single-use plastic, but some of those microplastics are directly placed in products that we use. For instance, facial scrub, which is crazy because facial scrub can be done naturally with just using some sugar and honey and some other things that Jonathan Van Ness in Queer Eye has explained once, and I don’t remember the tutorial. That’s just added into products that we use. We put on our face. And then obviously it’s washed off into the sewage system and the waterways, etc. So we have a lot to be responsible for.

Scott: We talk a lot about recycling and I, and I want to get to recycling, but is there anything about the production and manufacturing of plastic products that we should be thinking about in terms of the effect of making all this stuff on the environment?

Production and manufacturing of plastic products

Sofia: Yeah, I mean, the two topics are very closely linked because the way that plastics is made kind of determines how easy it’s going to be to recycle. And that’s quite a big topic, but so on one hand you’ve got synthetic plastics, which comes, you know, in various different kinds of acronyms, but one of the most common is PET, which stands for polyethylene… I’m not gonna be able to pronounce the second part!

Scott: Give me your best shot.

Sofia: Tarif-ta-LA-ti? Tarif-ta-lati.

Scott: I think that’s a Greek god.

Sofia: The god of pronunciation.

Scott: OK, I looked it up, it’s pronounced polyethylene terephthalate.

Sofia: So the PET plastic is one of the ones that we’re most familiar with because it’s the one that most plastic bottles are made of. And then we also have polystyrene, which is the kind of plastic that is used for most food packaging,

Scott: Polystyrene. I know that one from Radiohead, “Fake Plastic Trees.” But the question was, is there a production site problem with making plastic and its effect on the environment?

Sofia: Yes.

Scott: In addition to the “too much plastic in landfills and in the ocean” problem.

Plastic recycling

Sofia: Yes. What goes into the making of a plastic product also determines the level of its recyclability at the end of its lifecycle. So those two kind of need to be discussed hand in hand. But when we look at the production side of all the types of plastics that you have out there, when it comes to single use plastics, you mostly use PET plastic and polystyrene. When you take your plastic bottle—now I… the one I bought the other day had, I think, four different kind of labels on its actual label, indicating four different kinds of plastics that go into this tiny object.

And one is for the lid, one is for the label itself, one is for the body of the bottle. When all of these plastics happen in just one product, to be able to then recycle it, you will need to separate all of these elements because different kinds of plastics often do not melt properly and create a reusable kind of material.

And so separation of those components is one of the biggest challenges then facing the recycling process and therefore needs to happen at the source. And that kind of standardization would be one of the best innovations that the industry can come up with right now. And there are some elements of cooperation, especially between two of the major plastic producers in the world, which we won’t name because I don’t wanna get sued. But we’re talking Coca-Cola and Pepsi. They are collaborating on, um, some things related to their plastic bottles, but at least one of them appears to perceive the plastic bottle as an integral part of their brand identity, and therefore would seem resistant to make any substantial changes that would threaten that uniqueness of the product.

So that’s the kind of challenges also that we’re facing. It’s not just a matter of material, it’s not just a matter of the economics of putting it all together. It’s also a matter of the public perception of what these bottles would look like, if they were all standardized.

Scott: What would they look like if they were all standardized?

Sofia: You know, one of the things that they could do without is the label, for instance. And both of those two major producers have done bottles for the Asian markets where the brand name is inscribed in the plastic body of the bottle. Therefore, you don’t need the label. One thing that people don’t know about labels is that the ink with which the label is printed does influence the ultimate recyclability of that label and that part of plastic, so sometimes the devil is in the details.

Scott: Right, when you say that standardization can help us solve our plastic recycling problem, what are you talking about? Like what can we standardize exactly in order to make things better?

What can we standardize to make plastic products more recyclable?

Sofia: Well, the material in which the bottles are produced makes standardization better because once the bottles are collected, they can all be easily mixed in in a recycling facility. Because right now sorting out the different plastics that end up in facilities is one of the most challenging parts of the process, because they don’t mix.

Scott: So if we standardize the type of plastic we use, that’s one way that we can help this problem. Is there anything else that we can standardize?

Sofia: What I find fascinating about the plastic bottles standardization issue is that you already have a lot of these products coming in aluminum cans, which are 100% recyclable, are often a 100% recycled. So I don’t really see why plastic bottles persist.

Scott: Right. So with aluminum cans, if you’re buying, let’s say Diet Coke in aluminum cans, you’re only dealing with one type of metal that is regularly recyclable and don’t have to worry about all the different discrepancies between plastic you can recycle and what you can’t recycle and what shape and size… There’s a lot more uniformity, is that what you’re saying?

Sofia: Yeah. Sometimes there is a layer of plastic within it.

Scott: Plastic is everywhere.

Sofia: But by and large, the actual body of the aluminum can is pretty easy to process. But aluminum is just a different kind of material altogether. Um…

Scott: Oh my god. I have a delivery.

Sofia: Oh, lovely!

Scott: Wow.

Eric (sound engineer): From one of your admirers!

Scott: Oh my god. (sound of opening a paper bag) I’ve got a single-use coffee cup. A turkey bacon sandwich. Thank you, Rachel. And a lemon pound cake! You knew that I haven’t eaten in 12 hours.

Sofia: So describe this coffee cup for our listeners.

Scott: So we have a venti, and this is gonna offend your Italian sensibilities, a venti coffee cup, which, um… let’s see what number plastic it is… It’s a 5. “5 PP.” I don’t know what that means.

Sofia: Yeah, that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?

Scott: Right.

Sofia: So the code number “5PP” belongs to polypropylene, which is commonly used for yogurt, ketchup bottles, and is recyclable. The next life of polypropylene can be clothing fibers, food containers, and speed humps.

Scott: Speed humps!

Sofia: Speed humps.

Scott: This is really confusing as a person who uses a lot of single-use plastic, doesn’t really like that he uses a lot of single-use plastic, but tries to do his best, tries to recycle, and often feels that he can’t figure it out. Why has recycling kind of been pushed onto the consumer like this, as our responsibility?

Who is responsible for the plastic pollution problem?

Sofia: I think it’s something that we’ve kind of taken for granted, that once the product is in our hands, it becomes our problem. And that holds some truth to the extent that you do need to physically bring it to its next phase of life, and that will never change. There will always be a consumer element involved in whichever solution we find to the recycling system.

But where it ends up, it makes a really big difference, because if you knew that you could just take that cup back to your nearest Starbucks, then you’d know immediately what to do once you’re done with that.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: Instead, what you’re gonna do, most likely is at best, you’re going to find a plastic-specific bin in your immediate surroundings, and at worst, you’re just gonna find the regular bin and you’re just gonna chuck it in there.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: Because you don’t have any other options available to you, but how much more easy would it be if you could just bring it to your nearest Starbucks location? And obviously you’re in a city, so that seems easy to you. For people who do not live within a walkable radius, that could be a bit trickier. But some coffee stores are trialing a system of the sort.

Scott: Coming up, we’ll talk about why alternatives to plastic aren’t enough. We’ve got to throw away the whole damn system.

But first, a quick break.

OK, we’re back with Quartz’s Sofia Lotto Persio. Sofia, do you think consumers can actually make a dent in this problem, or should we be focusing on the producers, the companies that actually use and depend on plastic products?

Should plastic pollution producers be held accountable?

Sofia: The consumer will always have a role to play because ultimately that cup or that bottle ends up in their hands and they get to decide what comes next. But right now the system is not built to make it easy for people to make those decisions about what comes next. But I think that, you know, the reason why the statistics about recycling are so low is because there is still a lot of lack of awareness of what to do next when you want to dispose of something.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: One of the common misconceptions, which I myself am guilty of sometimes, but that I find super confusing, is when a product is contaminated with food elements, whether it’s oils or coffee residues, they cannot just go into a bin. They need to be washed first, and that adds that extra element. And when you’re at home, you can do it, but you’re gonna go to the bathroom now and wash that cup and then throw it away?

Scott: Right.

Sofia: You know, that’s where bringing it back to the Starbucks store will be useful because then they get to wash it and do whatever they want.

Scott: Yeah. Your idea of bringing the plastic cup back to the Starbucks reminds me of what a few different states here in the United States do, where you can bring in bottles and trade them in for a few cents per bottle. Would that be a good way to at least get plastic goods back into the hands of companies that might be able to recycle them more effectively?

Sofia: Yeah, that would definitely be one way to try and help consumers figure out what to do next. The monetary incentive can be a bit controversial at first because it sounds like a burden on the consumer once again. But there’s also studies that show that that monetary incentive is crucial in making that change of habit happen.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: In Scotland right now, that’s something that is being debated. Producers are very much in favor of it, like Coca-Cola, but it remains controversial because then it’s seen as giving an advantage to big stores compared to small ones where maybe they wouldn’t be able to have that kind of machinery and offer that kind of service.

Sometimes you have to take it back exactly to the store where you bought it from, which is obviously a huge obstacle to the initiative being successful, and other times you can just take it wherever, which you know is the way to make this more convenient for people, even when you’re asking something not super convenient from them.

Scott: I think this kind of gets me back to the initial question of why are we still using so much plastic, and why is plastic so interwoven in the fabric of our society and our life and our economy? Should we really be thinking more about transitioning to more responsible materials? In recent years, especially in the US there’s been a push away from plastic straws.

While many companies use paper straws to sidestep that problem, some, including Starbucks, use biodegradable plastic-esque straws. I’m wondering if we should be reframing the conversation around better substitutes for plastic rather than figuring out how to even deal with plastic as it is.

Sofia: Well, there’s two ways that you can go about this, but the message that people in the environmental community would like to send across is that there’s various stages to ending our addiction to plastic. And traditionally the slogan was “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” But actually, it’s been modernized to include a step before, which is something like, “Prevent, reduce, reuse, recycle.” So first of all, don’t make something that is going to be damaging.

Scott: Right.

Sofia: And then when, uh, that something is produced, then reduce the amount of units that you buy, and then once you’ve bought it, then use it as often as possible. And once you’ve used it as often as possible, try to put it somewhere where it can be recycled. And when it comes to the development of alternative plastic materials like bio-based plastics, plastics that are based from materials that are compostable, however, some of these plastics are not compostable in the sense that we think of composting, whether in a bin in a garden, or simply in a hole in the ground. They need to be composted in specific facilities…

Scott: Uh-huh.

Sofia: …for those purposes, and therefore also need to be identified as such. And right now there’s no real regulation around those materials, and so they could create more harm than good. Looking back, it is also what happened to the development of synthetic plastics. They were trying to replace something, and they ended up making the situation worse. What some people are calling for is for that regulation of bio-based plastics so that it’s very clear what they’re made of, how they should be recycled, etc.

And then there’s another kind of substitute for plastic, which is based on seaweeds, which is a great organic material that can be used for various different purposes. It’s great for your nutrition, but also can be worked into the kind of film-like substance that some synthetic plastics take. And finally, there is another way to go about it when you just want to look specifically at the end of the plastic lifecycle and its difficulties in decomposing in a natural environment, which is to tackle the polymer at its production point and change it so that it assumes a different kind of chemical material structure…

Scott: Right.

Sofia: …which allows it to decompose in nature. And this is something that a UK-based company that comes out of a research institution has developed this additive to the plastic production process, and they claim that the resulting material can decompose in the natural environment within two years.

Scott: Sofia, last season you introduced our listeners to something called mushroom leather, which is an alternative form of leather that looks and smells and feels just like leather, but is made out of mushrooms, not actual animal product. What is the mushroom leather of plastics that might get us to a better place sustainably?

What are potential substitutes for plastics?

Sofia: I would like to say it’s the seaweed-based plastic. Just because when I researched that topic, it gave me the same sense of hope as the mushroom leather development. If you want to learn more about it, go back to the episode.

But I think seaweed has the potential to replace plastic because it’s available in such great quantities. It’s a cheap material, and it can be just as malleable as plastic. Whether it’s as durable is the question. And I think when it comes to single-use products, seaweed can be that substitute. When it comes to different kinds of uses of plastics, especially in, the healthcare sector, that is probably more tricky.

I don’t know if we will ever get to a point where we can live in a plastic-free society. But if we need to keep a certain element of plastic in production, then, you know, it would be best if it was bio-based in some shape or form.

Scott: Right. Some change is necessary in order to reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, and the current system that we have now just isn’t gonna cut it as we tackle climate change at a high level.

Sofia: Yes.

Scott: A simple yes!

Sofia: We do need to think about the system holistically, and plastic is just one part of a bigger supply chain and modes of production that contribute to climate change. So some people argue that because plastic was developed as a possible use of waste production from oil and gas, that therefore it helps in cleaning up that part of the industry.

But of course it doesn’t, because you have to think about things from the point of when they first start being created to the end of their lifecycle. And so any kind of use of oil, we need to reduce, phase out, and eventually, you know, never touch ever again.

Scott: Yeah.

Sofia: And we need to keep it in the ground. So, the amount of plastic that is present in the world right now is enough. We don’t need to make any more. We can find ways to use what we have so that no more oil or gas need to be used for the making of plastics. Perhaps it’s important to point out that whereas, you know, in my mind, most plastic is made from oil, it’s actually the byproducts of natural gas production, ethylene, which is the main component of most plastics.

So it goes both ways, and I point that out because even though most oil production is set to disappear, hopefully, as we move towards a net-zero future, natural gas is probably going to be the last fossil fuel that we need to tackle. And so the link between the plastic production and fossil fuel production is still very strong and will remain to be something to consider.

It’s not something that’s gonna happen probably within the next century, frankly. You also have to consider that plastic solutions, some of them that are commercially available, but the scale at which they are commercially available is a fraction of the size of the plastics industry, which has had 150 years to develop and become the behemoth it is right now.

And trust me, they’re not going to just accept and open and embrace the new changes that come. Some of the more progressive plastic manufacturers are looking into that future, but there is a huge amount of resistance. Like, they’re not just there thinking, yes, let’s change it. And one of the things they say most often is that, especially when you talk about food packaging, is that there are all sorts of rules and regulations that, you know, rightly require certain standards to be met by food packaging.

Scott: Sure.

Sofia: And so that is also a barrier for those new innovations to overcome. And I think that’s totally possible, but there needs to be the will, there needs to be the capital behind this, and, obviously, eventually also a regulatory environment that helps those innovations come to market.

Scott: Right. We need some sort of widespread industry collaboration in order to solve the plastic problem. Do you think that is at all likely without regulation or the threat of regulation to make sure that we are dealing with plastic and investing in new types of alternative plastics in order to solve this problem?

The role of regulation in solving the plastic problem

Sofia: “Collaboration” in a system that has always prized competition can be seen as a dirty word, and I think it’ll take some adjusting to a new mode of doing things for that to become a more commonplace solution. But it is happening. I think slowly we are seeing that, at least at face value, some of the big names that have profited the most from plastic production in the past century do see the value in being seen as sustainable and finding solutions to the environmental problems they helped create. So at least on paper, we do see a lot of those announcements in those goodwill gestures to collaborate.

I think because this topic can be quite technical, it’s difficult to poke holes in those arguments and make sure that you don’t get swept away…

Scott: Right.

Sofia: … by the greenwashing that might hide behind some of those statements.

Scott: Is there anything that a Coca-Cola or a PepsiCo could do tomorrow to drastically improve the plastic problem that we have?

Sofia: I mean, they could stop.

Scott: Stop using it entirely. Just go cans.

Sofia: You know I really don’t see why we can’t just drink from cans.

Scott: Yeah.

Sofia: At one point you also have to wonder why you go down this innovation route of “We’ll make all of our bottles 100% from recycled PET.” And they say that they do, but it’s not the case, because we just said that only one part of a bottle is made of PET and the rest is a different kind of plastic that goes in the lid. The lid problem is extremely underestimated when it comes to the plastic bottle issue.

One of the misconceptions that I’ve heard is that, because plastic is lighter than other materials like glass, the carbon footprint of a plastic bottle is smaller compared to that of a glass bottle. And when you use the parameters that the company is using, it’s true, because it’s light, and therefore you can transport more bottles in the same space compared to glass, etc. But then you have to think about, where did this bottle come from? How far did it travel from the factory to the other factory and finally to the store?

There are statements that are made that can easily use data to mislead you into thinking that the choices that they’re making are reasonable and reasoned and based on sustainable principles. Because it’s not just one step that creates that carbon footprint, it’s the entire production process. And ultimately, whenever you’re using something that, at some point in time, has required fossil fuels in its production, their carbon footprint is already skyrocketing compared to something that doesn’t.

Scott: So what happens when you try to recycle a plastic cup that has some residue of soda or beer… it’s contaminated in some way that doesn’t make it eligible to be recycled.

Sofia: Well, that depends on the facility and their capacities. But I think there is a very high chance that it’s just not gonna be recycled in the end. The machinery that is used in recycling facilities is quite sensitive, and things can get broken really easily if they’re not sorted properly. And so in most facilities, you’re not gonna risk breaking down the whole process over one piece of waste. You’re just gonna throw it out.

The way that this is handled is definitely one of the problems in the recycling process. It’s getting a little bit smarter, I think, thanks to innovation. There are some companies that now use robots to sort through waste, and these robots are becoming smarter, and hopefully those kinds of flaws in the system can be fixed. But there is also an element of awareness that needs to come in because if you could just easily know what to do with this piece of plastic, then you would know how to dispose of it, whether it needs to be washed or not, whether it needs to be washed or dry, or whether you can just chuck it away. Like, what level of oil residue is OK? I mostly just rinse them under really hot water, and I hope that that’s the trick.

Scott: That’s more than I do. I’m wondering how much plastic we actually are using as consumers.

Sofia: You can find different kinds of statistics, but one of the ballpark figures that is used is that we produce 520,000 tons of plastic a day, and specifically to plastic bottles, the ballpark figure is that every year there are 500 billion PET bottles sold. So overall, the dismal rate of recycling for plastic globally is 9%. But according to the US government, in the US in 2018, 29.1% of PET bottles were recycled. So that’s actually quite a promising statistic, and it shows that whatever infrastructure is there already, at least for one of these products, is kind of working.

It’s a start. It’s not ideal. That means two thirds of all PET bottles, either they end up in a landfill or in the environment. But it shows there is some form of infrastructure that you can build on. You’re not starting from zero.

Scott: OK. I want to end with a lightning round because I bet a lot of us have the same questions after hearing all about this.

Scott: Are you ready?

Sofia: I’m ready. Shoot!

Scott: All right. Should I stop recycling?

Sofia: No.

Scott: That’s a good answer. Should I stop buying single-use plastic water bottles?

Sofia: Yes, whenever possible. Unless you’re dying of thirst, then, you know, drink it from whatever container it comes from, as long as it’s clean and safe.

Scott: That’s good health advice. What should I buy instead of plastic water bottles?

Sofia: Bring with you a reusable bottle.

Scott: Now if I’ve seen some water in different kinds of vessels that maybe you wouldn’t normally associate. I’m thinking specifically aluminum cans and also boxed water, or like paper cartons. Are those better alternatives?

Sofia: Yes, especially if you can dispose of it easily. The boxed water, I don’t know enough about it… it’s more of a question mark.

Scott: There’s a lot of very trendy, fancy water bottles. In my household alone, we have a Hydro Flask that my wife adores and a Stanley cup. Should we subscribe to these fads in schmancy water bottles if it means that we reduce our reliance on single-use plastic water bottles?

Sofia: Stick to one, preferably. Find your favorites.

Scott: Only one!? They do different things!

Sofia: They’re just supposed to contain water and bring it to your mouth!

Scott: Some have straws… some don’t have straws… some fit in a cup holder… some are…

Sofia: If you can just have something that is stainless steel is probably the easiest thing to clean…

Scott: OK.

Sofia: … and probably last the longest. So think about the durability of what you buy.

Scott: Am I absolved of guilt for buying all these iced coffees on the go? Well,

Sofia: Well, unlike the Catholic church in the Middle Ages, I am not in the business of absolutions. However, I do think that the occasional sin can be forgiven when you want to just get yourself a drink and you’re in a rush.

But if getting coffee is part of your routine, whether it’s your morning routine to work, or your lunch break routine, do consider getting a reusable container, because it will at least make you feel like you are doing whatever you can to tackle a problem that is bigger than yourself, but at least you’re not actively contributing to it because you will have to play a part in whatever solution we find to the current problem.

Scott: Are you saying I’ll have to answer to my sins?

Sofia: Again, not the Catholic church.

Scott: Cardinal Sofia.

Sofia: Not baptized. I’m going straight to hell after this.

Scott: I’m Jewish, so it’s much worse, so don’t worry.

Sofia: Well, I’ll see you somewhere in the afterlife! (laughs)

Scott: Sofia, this was wonderful. Thank you.

Sofia: Yeah, good luck with the recovery.

Scott: Sofia Lotto Persio is an editor at Quartz.

The Quartz Obsession is produced by Rachel Ward, with additional support from executive editor Susan Howson and platform strategist Shivank Taksali. Our theme music is by Taka Yasuzawa and Alex Suguira. This episode was recorded by Eric Wojahn at Solid Sound in Ann Arbor Michigan, and by Sofia, at her house in London.

If you like what you heard, leave us a review! We love hearing what you think about the show.

Tell your friends about us, then head to to sign up for Quartz’s Weekly Obsession email, and browse hundreds of stories about everything from lingerie, to IMAX, to the anti-Santa Claus … the anti-Claus? Krampus.

Quartz is a guide to the new global economy, for people in business who are excited about change.

We hope you’ll join us next time when we dig into online voting.

Shivank Taksali: I’ve definitely become more clear-eyed about the prospect of online voting becoming widely adopted in the United States.

Scott: I’m Scott Nover … thanks for listening

Don’t Krampus my style.

Scott: Sofia, how do you feel about the Super Mario Bros movie starring Chris Pratt, who’s not Italian?

Sofia: Super Mario has an accent that is, you know, some people might consider offensive, but I think the fact that they chose Chris Pratt is unforgivable.

Scott: It is unforgivable.

Sofia: And I really wanted to watch it because I love Anya Taylor-Joy, and I would love to see her, you know, voicing Princess Peach. I bet she’s amazing. Maybe I’m going to watch the half Japanese version and then half the American version. I’m just gonna switch through.

Scott: Yeah.

Sofia: I think Lady Gaga should have been Mario. That would’ve been hilarious.

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