“Single-use plastic” is one of the biggest villains in today’s environmental crisis. We hear the sad stories about sea animals stuck in food packaging, and birds who die with stomachs full of plastic sacks, yet it seems we cannot escape using these products. Sustainable is not accessible to all people, and while recycling programs, reusable grocery bags, and metal straws help the environment, the impact an individual has on the plastic problem is meek compared to big corporations, and manufacturers. The more companies that switch to sustainable packaging, will mean it is more accessible to individuals, and the bigger positive impact on the environment we will see. This is not unattainable for companies, as there are many ways to make an impact on their environmental impact, and even small steps by these companies could bring us closer to a cleaner, safer world.

Every trip to the grocery store is like visiting a museum of single-use plastic. Shampoo, conditioner and soap in plastic bottles, shrink wrap around fruits that already have a protective peel, and bags full of salads, sliced meat, chips, and more. Unless someone wants to make things from scratch at home, or buy in bulk, reducing plastic when shopping, even for necessities such as toiletries and food, is improbable, and too time consuming for most. Speed and convenience are the masters of today’s society, and especially since the spread of COVID-19 has shifted the world’s focus onto social distancing, online shopping has become more popular than ever. These already prepackaged-in-plastic products are shipped in a box full of bubble wrap, or extra Styrofoam, causing even more waste than in-person shopping.

So, why do we pick the bread in the bag instead of making our own? Why do we still order from Amazon instead of going to the store? Because companies have made it cheap and quick to get bag of sliced of bread from the grocery store, or to order more of your favorite shampoo with just our voice, and a smart device. The cheapest and most convenient products are packaged with plastic, and other non-sustainable materials, and until people stop needing things, it is up to the companies that sell these products to make sustainability accessible to the masses. Not only will reducing single use plastic and switching to more sustainable packaging reduce the consumption of these materials by the public, but it will also reduce the amount of plastic that goes straight from the shelves to the landfills when the food expires, or the product gets broken and it cannot be sold.

It seems like a straightforward problem, but the solution is complex, with production cost, access to materials, and durability during shipment and display being only a fraction of the things companies would have to consider when switching to sustainable packaging. I am not here to criticize a problem and offer no solutions, and I have explored why companies using sustainable packaging is important, so here are some things I think would make strides in the effort for companies to be more environmentally friendly. First, making it easier for patrons to buy waste free, for example there are brands and stores in which a person buys the product once and can re-fill it at the store instead of buying a whole new product when it runs out, this can work for things such as for things like coffee grounds, liquid soaps, and small snacks such as crackers, nuts or candies. Another strategy would be to more strongly encourage people to bring their own reusable packaging to the store. Stores such as Aldi, do this by not providing free grocery bags, and instead selling reusable ones if someone forgets their own. To take this a step further, stored can sell things that are not pre-packaged in plastic when possible, and selling reusable produce, snack, and grocery bags, so people will be encouraged to shop more sustainably and reuse bags. Online retailers can use packaging that is 100% recyclable or compostable, partner with recycling programs to offer rewards for recycling their packages or offer rewards or discounts for returning the packaging so it can be cleaned and reused.

It is up to the individual, or course to support sustainable companies, but companies, especially very big ones, have a responsibility to reduce waste and make their packaging more environmentally friendly. Because convenience and speed are of paramount importance in the hustle and bustle of today’s society, single use plastic has become a staple of our everyday lives, but only because these companies have made it that easy. As long as people buy things, it is up to the companies we buy from to make sustainability accessible to the masses.

Essay by: Brianna Duncan
Arizona State University