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Single use products are indicative of a take-make-waste system: we take resources from the planet to make products, we use them for a short time and then we throw them away. This system can also be referred to as a linear economy. In the U.S., the linear economy produces and disposes of over 180 billion single use takeout packaging products annually.
We live on a planet of limited resources – resources that due to their limited supply, should be highly valued. But the linear economy disassociates resource value from the products produced, pretending instead that natural resources will be available endlessly.
The linear economy is hugely wasteful and wildly expensive when we consider the economic and environmental implications that come with it. Per the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s The New Plastics Economy report, “95% of plastic packaging material value, or $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy.” The total cost of plastic packaging, including after-use externalities (such as cleaning up plastic pollution) plus the cost associated with carbon emissions from production is “conservatively estimated at $40 billion annually.” Such loss may not come as a surprise considering how each stage of the single use packaging lifecycle – from design to production to transportation to resell to disposal – is potentially managed independently, with no coordination or collaboration between stakeholders.
But what about recycling? Unfortunately, our current plastic recycling efforts fall far short of our hopeful intentions. Again, per the The New Plastics Economy report, “only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. When additional value losses in sorting and reprocessing are factored in, only 2% of material value is retained for a subsequent use. “ The graphic below shows the global flows of plastic packaging in 2013.