Though for many years environmentalists have been gaining headway against plastic’s cruelty, the pandemic has provided an ideal breeding-ground for the plastic industry’s revival.
Before the pandemic, I’d convinced my parents to start shopping at Sprouts and filling washable cloth bags with trail mix and chocolates, instead of buying the Trader Joe's plastic-in-plastic snacks. I’d started shopping at Farmers markets, in an attempt to both support local farmers and shop with reusable bags for fresh produce.
As the pandemic hit in March, the prospective impact of the lack of travel would have on the environment looked pretty bright. Air quality began to improve as factories closed and travel ceased, and carbon emissions were “projected to fall by 4 percent” this year compared with 2019. At least peripherally, this reduction of carbon emissions from lack of plane, train, and car travel was viewed as the “environmental silver lining” to the pandemic.
The global quarantine orders led to a “precipitous drop” in oil demand. In April 2020, United States oil prices dropped below zero, causing an oil market collapse.
But, since plastics are composed of these same natural gases and oils once burned for air travel and cars, plastic now became the new target of these same oils and gases. The “price disparity” has drastically increased between cheaper plastics and sustainable plastic alternatives because of this drop in oil demand. Now, it is specifically “advantageous [for companies] to package [their] goods in newly made, cheap virgin plastic.”
Though a significant motivator, the price of new virgin plastics is not the only reason for plastic’s revival.
Self-service bins at stores are now closed. Because the virus is known to linger on plastics and fabrics for a couple of days, coffee shops have no longer been accepting refillable metal cups and many stores are no longer accepting or largely discouraging the use of reusable bags. Farmers markets, though open, are a COVID hazard many may be avoiding. And, because of the economic crisis and household budget concerns, many shoppers may be opting for the -- usually cheaper -- plastic-packaged goods.
Takeout is also a significant component to the increase of plastic waste. With indoor dining closed, restaurants have taken the time to vamp-up their takeout options. Instead of at-home cooking, many may opt for a take-out meal, but it also causes an exorbitant amount of plastic waste. As a comparison for the effect this has on the environment, “the manufacture of four plastic bottles,” or perhaps 2 takeout containers, “releases the equivalent greenhouse gas emissions of driving one mile in a car.”
Because PPE (personal protective equipment) is mandated most places around the world, the continued use of non-reusable masks (and the excessive use of rubber gloves) has also greatly contributed to the rise of litter and environmental pollution. Overall, 129 billion face masks and 69 billion gloves are being used monthly. Whether small ocean animals become entangled in the masks or larger animals’ digestion is clogged due to the consumption of the litter, the careless disposal of PPE is compounding the environmental catastrophe the pandemic is bringing on.
According to Scientific American, there is 30% more waste predicted in 2020 than in 2019. But specifically due to the pandemic, there are minimal ways to recycle and manage plastic waste. “Waste management infrastructure,” in developing economies especially, “has been re-appropriated.” Not only is recycling infrastructure in the US greatly lacking, but this problem is “further amplified in Indonesia, Brazil, India, Kenya, Guatemala and Haiti,” where mismanaged waste equates to open dumps, environmental leakage, and river and ocean contamination.
Although the individual consumer cannot influence industry transparency or completely reinvent global recycling infrastructure to better deal with existing plastics, there are still many ways to uphold your values as a sustainable human and limit your pandemic-carbon-footprint. Below is a compiled list of possible steps you could take to both maintain progress while still being relatively COVID-safe.
- AUDIT YOUR CURRENT LIFESTYLE:
Though auditing usually has the connotation of larger, company-wide trash sorting, you can also audit your trash bins at home. Because much of our waste gets tossed mindlessly, sorting through a regular sample of trash can help your household realize the main sources of plastic/landfill waste and can therefore help cut portions out. For example, if you tally lots of small hand sanitizer containers in the end-of-the-week-trash-bin, consider ordering a larger supply in a larger container, which you can then distribute to reused and smaller bottles. If you’re looking for a simple, at home and step-by-step trash-audit, check out this website.
- BUY IN BULK:
You know best what you eat the most, especially if you’ve already audited your trash and determined your greatest sources of food-wrapper waste. Whether it’s oats, rice, flour for baking, cashews, dried fruit, pasta, shredded cheese, canned goods -- buying food you tend to eat daily in bulk is a great way to save on packaging, if not money. But hold on -- don't act too fast! Really ask yourself: are you going to eat it? Yes, there might be less plastic wrapped around the food, but if you end up tossing half the bag after a week, the environmental footprint may be just as negative as the original smaller wrapper.
- GET A REUSABLE MASK:
Almost five months through this pandemic and I still see way too many people walking around with single use surgical masks. Though they may be handy if you have no other choice, or convenient when you're running late and grab one out of the never-ending-box-of-masks, they’re created for urgent, sterile and necessary one-time-use, like for doctors in a hospital. They break and rip very easily, and they’re not washable. You’re much better off investing a few more dollars in a washable cloth mask or sewing one at home.
If you do end up using a surgical mask once, however, make sure to dispose of it properly. Thoughtlessly tossing a mask or “forgetting” it where you sat down has only exacerbated the ocean pollution problem, where millions of masks and gloves are littering the ocean bottom.
- AVOID TAKE-OUT:
However tempting it may be to call in some pizza or pick up Chipotle just down the street, I urge you to take-out wisely during these months. Many restaurants have now refined their COVID takeout tactics to become highly convenient and appealing. As much as you can, cook at home for a more sustainable, healthy and cheap meal.
Avoid the daily Starbucks run, especially now as they are refusing reusable cups. Instead invest in an espresso or coffee machine, and some ceramic mugs.
And finally, if you opt for takeout, make sure to let the restaurant know ahead of time if you are taking-out to go eat on your home couch. Then, they won’t have to give you plastic-wrapped sporks, knives, and napkins, and you can slightly assuage your guilt for eating out of a styrofoam box by using your own metal dish ware.
- BAG YOUR OWN GROCERIES:
Most grocery stores have banned reusable bags due to fears of transmission, but that shouldn’t mean you have to resort to the old days of plastic bags. Either ask for a cardboard box (which they have started doing at some Trader Joes stores and have done at Costco for a while) or take your groceries -- without the bag and in your shopping cart -- out to your car and bag them up there.
- BUY FOOD WISELY:
This could be one of the most critical steps you can take to severely cut your plastic usage. Instead of stocking your freezer with easily microwavable or frozen foods -- which almost always come prepackaged and indefinitely wrapped -- try to bag more fresh produce and find simple, from-scratch meals to prepare.
- BUY LOCAL:
Though buying local has made sense all along, it is an especially critical step today. Logically, less transportation means less packaging, and less overall carbon footprint. Instead of ordering a mask off of Amazon, lower your carbon footprint and support small businesses struggling during this time by buying from a local merchant.
- DON'T USE GLOVES UNNECESSARILY:
If you can wash your hands according to the proper guidelines, then gloves are quite unnecessary. Unless you are caring for sick patients or you are cleaning, going to the grocery store or walking your dog with gloves on is overkill and isn’t shown to decrease your likelihood of being infected. And although it is technically possible to become infected with COVID through a surface, it is “highly unlikely,” as the virus is mainly spread through respiratory droplets in the air. Rather, try to practice other more sustainable and reasonable methods of staying safe from COVID, like social distancing and wearing masks.
These are not the only steps one can be taking to reduce plastic use during the pandemic. Clearly, do your local research for what is recyclable, cut your general kitchen and bathroom waste, and continue to think cautiously about your purchases.
The unforeseen environmental consequences of the pandemic are quickly manifesting, and only with the combined effort of citizens, industries, and governments can we combat this plastic pandemic.