A few months after the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to close and people to stay in their homes, we witnessed some of the lowest levels of pollution and carbon emissions. Recent reports showed clearer skies and more peaceful streets in many cities. However, a subtle problem has been lurking in the background. As COVID-19 hits, it seems to be shifting the tide toward single-use plastics.
The pandemic has increased the amount of being plastic being used in many countries, including medical supplies and packaging. In the streets of Kalamata, a Greek city southwest of Athens, for instance, discarded gloves, wipes, and bottles of sanitizer are strewn across parks, sidewalks, and roads as people try to protect themselves and others from infection. A similar problem is also seen in bigger metropolises such as New York and London.
Recently, Gary Stokes from the conservation group OceansAsia found about 100 masks washed up over in Soko Islands. Stokes suspected that these masks came from either China or Hong Kong. "We hadn't noticed this many masks before in such a remote location. When we found them, it only had been six to eight weeks since people had started using these masks,” he said.
Gloves, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other plastic waste are now left to float in our oceans. While it’s understandable how these are necessary for protecting ourselves from the virus, they should also be disposed of properly. According to EcoWatch, a leading environmental news site engaging millions of concerned individuals every month, environmentalists fear negative consequences for wildlife and the fight against plastic pollution.
"If they're thrown on the streets, when it rains the gloves and masks will eventually end up in the sea," Anastasia Miliou, a marine biologist and research director with the Archipelagos Institute of Marine Conservation based in Greece, said.
Efforts to stop plastic pollution have also been in vain as coronavirus hits many countries. The zero-waste movement, for instance, has become nearly impossible to achieve. Creating as little garbage as possible is a hard task considering the limited resources we have while making sure we are protected from getting infected by the virus.
The Zero-Waste Lifestyle
In recent years, the trend of the zero-waste lifestyle has quickly been adopted by many people, hoping they could help our environment even in the smallest ways. Even major brands and cities are joining in. According to Vox, a liberal-leaning American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, the popularity of zero-waste lifestyles coincides with mounting evidence that climate change will be the defining event of this century. It also one of the ways to prevent a staggering amount of plastic from entering our oceans.
The zero-waste lifestyle encourages people to reuse goods and packaging as many times as possible, instead of disposing them and buying new ones. This practice not only minimizes a person’s waste but also prevents energy and resources from being spent on manufacturing and shipping new stuff. It even encouraged stores to do the same. Just Salad, a fast-casual chain, diverted 75,000 pounds of plastic from landfills with its $1 reusable bowls in 2019. Customers use these bowls whenever they come back to the chain. During the same year, Terracycle launched Loop, an online store that sells groceries and household items in reusable packaging.
Many zero-waste stores were also established in several countries. For instance, Original Unverpakt in Germany, Lunzers in Austria, Granel in Spain, Effecorta in Italy, and The Zero Waste Shop in the UK. All of them help people make more environmentally conscious choices. The world’s largest companies have also been taking steps to reduce single-use plastics. Kroger, America’s largest grocery store chain, has said that it will divert 90% of its food waste from landfills by 2020 and eliminate plastic bags by 2025.
At the same time, huge companies such as Unilever, Nestlé, and PepsiCo all recently announced plans to roll out reusable packaging for certain products in an attempt to reduce single-use disposables. Unfortunately, all of these plans might be delayed due to the pandemic.
This Pandemic Challenges Zero-Waste Lifestyle
Since home-quarantines started across the world, there has been a significant increase in the usage of plastic hygiene products, PPEs, and other plastic wastes. “Earlier I would reuse everything or travel to the shop and use reusable carry bags. But now we have been advised to throw packing for safety reasons. I have also ordered items such as washing up liquid whereas before we would travel to the shop to refill those,” Lorna, a special education teacher at the Widad Centre, Dubai, said.
Given the rapid, worldwide spread of COVID-19, all manner of reuse habits were put to a halt due to germaphobic fear. Part of the problem is that the majority of the population isn’t aware that the problem with single-use plastic is huge, especially during this crisis. “As you saw around the world, everyone went panic-buying and bought so many unnecessary items “just in case” – this not only created plastic and packaging waste but also food waste ultimately as there is only so much food you can store in a house,” Doua Benhida, founder of the Zero Waste Collective (ZWC), said.
Some people even think that plastic packaging is sanitary, thus, encouraging them to buy more these days. According to Wired, a monthly American magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy, and more, this idea goes back to the 1950s when the oil industry first introduced disposable plastic packaging and goods. Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of TerraCycle, said that disposability brought about unparalleled affordability and convenience.
"Moving from a plate you had to wash—probably by hand, because there weren’t even dishwashers then—to a disposable plate you could throw away was massively liberating and also very cheap. And I think what ended up happening is people got this misperception that wrapping something in plastic also made it more sanitary,” he explained.
However, Szaky said that the pandemic isn’t a sign to give up on the zero-waste lifestyle. “That’s really important for the environment to do, and we shouldn’t suddenly forsake that because of all the fear around this particular issue,” he said.