27 June 2023

10 WORST SINGLE-USE PLASTICS AND ECO-FRIENDLY ALTERNATIVES

Plastic is built to last.

So what’s the deal with single-use plastics? Around 30% of plastics consumed are single use. While convenient, they’re discarded after just one use. The amount of time, energy and effort that goes into producing, exporting and importing these products just doesn’t add up - especially if they’re made to last forever. Australians have one of the biggest single-use plastic footprints per person in the world - we’re second after Singapore.

Where do single-use plastics go once we’ve used them? Shockingly, only 12% of plastics used in Australia ends up recycled. We’re using too many single-use products, we’re not recycling enough, and the vast majority is ending up in landfill or littered in our parks, nature and oceans. Something needs to change. 

Here are 10 of the worst single-use plastics and how we can ditch them for good. The best thing we can do for wildlife and the planet is to make a permanent switch to reusables and leave single-use behind where it belongs. Making the switch is easy. 

1. Plastic straws

Thorny seahorse and a plastic straw in the ocean
© Shutterstock / Krzysztof Bargiel / WWF

In Australia, nearly 1.3 billion straws were used in 2020. They’re lightweight, so once they’re dropped or discarded, plastic straws easily blow into waterways and enter our oceans. Once in our oceans, they’re extremely dangerous for our marine wildlife. Thankfully, these are now banned in most Australian states and territories, with a national ban complete by 2025. 

Plastic free alternatives: If you can, go straw free! Or try stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, pasta straws and rice straws(yes, they’re a thing!). For those that like the flexibility of plastic straws, there are other eco-friendly alternatives including paper straws, reusable silicone straws and compostable plant-based straws.

2. Plastic drink stirrers

Cocktail stirrers are a fun accessory for drinks, but most are made from plastic and only used once before the novelty of them fades and they’re thrown away. They end up in the trash, on our beaches and in our oceans. 

Plastic free alternatives: Reusable glass or bamboo stirrers, or spoons! Or try a stick of celery, carrot or cucumber. Why not go herbal and try a stick of rosemary?

3. Balloons

What goes up must eventually come down. Helium balloons may be pretty, but they’re also deadly. CSIRO research shows they’re one of the highest-risk plastic debris items for seabirds. And many balloons labeled as biodegradable simply aren’t.

Plastic free alternatives: Plan a planet-friendly party and skip the balloons. Opt for more eco-friendly decoration options like paper lanterns, reusable bunting, DIY bubble blowers and flowers.

4. Plastic cotton buds

Did you know that 1.5 billion cotton buds are produced every day? Sadly, many of these cotton buds end up in our oceans. Once the cotton tips dissolve, all that’s left is essentially a small, rigid plastic stick which is easily ingested by birds, fish and other marine wildlife. These are already on the way out in Australia, with many states and territories including them in single-use plastic bans. 

Plastic free alternatives: Fluid ear washes, bamboo cotton buds, organic cotton makeup pads or a reusable silicon swab. (And like my granny used to say - “Stick nothing in your ears smaller than your elbow!”).

5 & 6. Coffee cups & lids

Discarded disposable coffee cups litter the streets
© Elizabeth Dalziel / WWF-UK

Australians use around 1.8 billion cups every year and 1.5 billion coffee lids, and most of these end up in landfill. It’s important to note that the vast majority of takeaway coffee cups and lids aren’t recycled or composted. And when you BYO cup, you're gently nudging others to take up more sustainable practices. 

Plastic free alternatives: Reusable cups, porcelain mugs or dine in and take a moment to enjoy the incredible coffee we’re lucky to have in Australia. 

7. Plastic cutlery

Eating out and getting takeaway often comes with more than just food. Plastic cutlery and plastic bags often come in the mix. 

In Australia, plastic cutlery isn’t easily recycled. Recycling machines generally can’t sort them due to their shape, so many end up sitting in landfills for decades - potentially centuries. Plastic cutlery is now banned in many Australian states and territories. 

Eco-friendly alternatives: Next time you order takeaway, make a special request to opt out and say no to disposables. Switch to reusable bamboo utensils, a travel cutlery set that you can take with you wherever you go or bring your own from home! Chopsticks are also a great alternative to have in your bag if you’re planning on getting takeaway.

8. Plastic cups

910 million plastic cups are consumed every year in Australia. While lightweight and convenient, foam cups (made from polystyrene) can’t be collected by most council kerbside recycling services and often end up as trash in landfills.

Plastic free alternatives: Bring your own reusable cup or a mason jar if you’re planning a trip to your favourite juice or smoothie shop. You can also help encourage your favourite cafes and food retailers to switch to eco-friendly and compostable alternatives.

9. Plastic containers

Disposable plastic cutlery and containers used at food markets
© Elizabeth Dalziel / WWF-UK

The good news is, polystyrene food containers are on the way out, with states and territories bringing in laws to ban them over the next few years. But single-use plastic containers are still everywhere, from supermarkets to our local cafes and takeaway restaurants. 

Plastic free alternatives: Choose nature-friendly takeaway! Next time you order takeaway, choose cuisines like pizza or Mexican that don’t often come in plastic containers and avoid pre-packaged meals. Most food outlets will happily put the food directly into your own reusable container if you ask. Some options for containers include glass containers, stainless steel lunch boxes and mason jars. You can also shop at bulk food stores and bring your own containers to fill. If you’re eating out, why not ask your favourite outlets to switch to compostable and eco-friendly alternatives?

10. Plastic plates

Plastic plates might be cheap and handy when hosting parties or at picnics or food courts, but once they’re thrown away, they usually end up in landfills. Most recycling centres are unable to sort these plates due to their shape. These are also on the way out in many states and territories, but you can get ahead of the curve by switching to reusables right now!

Plastic free alternatives: Reusable plastic, glass or porcelain plates. Alternatively, palm leaf or bamboo pulp plates.