Word of the year?

7 November 2018
Collins dictionary has declared 'single-use' to be the word of the year in 2018, they suggest it is a term that describes items whose unchecked proliferation are blamed for damaging the environment and affecting the food chain.

Single-use refers to products – often plastic – that are ‘made to be used once only’ before disposal. Images of plastic adrift in the most distant oceans, such as straws, bottles, and bags have led to a global campaign to reduce their use.

The word has seen a four-fold increase since 2013, with news stories and images such as those seen in the BBC’s Blue Planet II steeply raising public awareness of the issue.
I have written a piece for the MoDiP website which explores the idea of 'single-use'.  It is a term with bad connotations; it makes us think of waste and of rubbish.  We need to think about why we have objects that are designed to be used only once. 

In the early twentieth century disposability, and the notion of using something once and then throwing it away grew to become a sign of wealth and cleanliness.  Consumers were encouraged to use disposable products for their efficiency and to avoid contamination.  The ideas of purification and convenience encouraged the development of ethical justifications for the use of disposable items. [1]

Packaging plays an important role; it protects our food from contamination, dirt, and germs.
Logically we think that using a paper bag is a better alternative than non-biodegradable plastics. However, for every lorry needed to transport plastic bags to where they are needed it would take 7 lorries to deliver the same number of paper bags. [2]

We must also consider the effects on scarce water supplies to maintain healthy plant production.  If we were to replace plastic bags with paper in this country, it would require ‘a hundred and seventy million acres of extra forest land for paper production, an area the size of the United Kingdom […] and would also raise annual energy consumption by more than 225% each year’. [3]

There are situations where the use of single use plastics are appropriate.  In a medical setting where we want to avoid contamination, particularly when the skin is punctured.  By using Smart syringes where the needle retracts as it is used ‘will hopefully help eliminate the 1.7 million new hepatitis B cases, the 300,000 hepatitis C cases and the 35,000 HIV cases every year’. [4]

For more information about plastics and the environment please see our webiste: www.modip.ac.uk/plastics/plastics-and-environment

Louise Dennis (Assistant Curator)

1. Gay Hawkins, The Ethics of Waste: How We Relate to Rubbish (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto & Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006).  25-26
2. British Plastics Federation, ‘Plastic Packaging and the Environment’ http://www.bpf.co.uk/packaging/environment.aspx [accessed 21 February 2018].
3. Victor Papanek, The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995).  40
4. James Gallagher, ‘WHO Urges Shift to Single-Use Smart Syringes’, BBC News, 2015 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-31550817 [accessed 5 March 2018].