Can Sustainability Co-Exist Alongside COVID-19?

Stuck at home with nothing to do but snack and daydream, we’re all ordering deliveries. With those to-go containers of comforting pasta dishes, the boxes of Amazon goodies, and the new home office furniture comes a lot of packaging and single-use disposable garbage. Our cleaning habits have ramped up, too, in the face of fighting the virus and stopping the spread of germs. We’re wiping down, tossing masks, and hoarding toilet paper. All this adds up to more trash sent to landfills and less of a sense that we’re reusing, reducing, and recycling our way to a greener planet. So the question is, how can our sustainable intentions survive amidst a global pandemic?

Recycling Was Already Endangered Before 2020

The United States had big problems getting rid of recyclables even before its citizens started ordering everything in. Two years ago, China changed policies on how much U.S. recyclable cardboard and other materials it would buy from municipal landfills and other organizations. U.S. recycling exports dropped 95% for plastics alone after the change. Now, it’s extremely unprofitable to recycle cardboard and plastics, and more and more is ending up going straight to the local landfill.

In Boston, “a recycling professional currently working in a materials recycling facility says the market is at the lowest point in his more than 30 years, adding the loss of such a huge market like China leaves an incomparable hole that no other markets could possibly fill,” writes Zoe Yuqing Han at the MetroWest Daily News.

But that’s not all. With so many recycling programs relying on workers physically separating items from a single-stream of mixed plastic, paper, and glass, the threat of exposure to the coronavirus has caused some cities to put a pause on their initiatives. Cities like Tacoma, WA; Eureka, CA; and East Lansing, MI suspended or closed recycling drop-off centers, aluminum can buy-back programs, and other recycling initiatives where close contact or potential viral transmission were feared. Even some garbage and recycling facilities were closed as workers tested positive. At their posts as essential workers, these sorters and haulers were on the front line of not only our excess trash, but also the pandemic from the earliest of days.

Ways We’re Acting Less Sustainably

  • We’re also not doing a great job of keeping green while keeping clean during the pandemic. Single-use anti-viral wipes and paper towels were the first items to fly off shelves (next to toilet paper) when states started to shut down in the spring.
  • We wipe surfaces, wash our hands, blow our noses, and then repeat the process with all new paper products.
  • We use single-serving products like individual cans of soda or juice, instead of sharing a larger container and washing an extra cup or dish.
  • We switch to paper plates for meals because we’re home more and are tired of washing plates all day.
  • We ask for online orders to come quickly, meaning in more cardboard boxes with more packaging materials inside. This informative video from the Wall Street Journal shows just how complex that journey can be for a single order to your home.
  • We’re shopping with single-use plastic bags, not reusable bags, as we’re told to leave our potentially contaminated cloth bags at home.

Greener Can Be Cleaner

And the thing is, single-use items aren’t “safer” or “cleaner” than reusable ones. We’re just used to the idea that “to go” and “clean” are synonymous with disposable. Studies show that reusables, once cleaned, are just as safe as single-use items, even in the time of COVID.

“Disposable plastic is not inherently safer than reusables. Plastic isn’t clean and safe, and nothing is convenient about the disastrous impacts of its one-time use,” says marine biologist John Hocevar in a recent article published at Architectural Digest. “It’s incredibly important that we don’t jeopardize the long-term health of our planet by continuing to rely on single-use plastics that end up as pollution.”

Reusable can be a part of a safe quarantine life, in fact. Right now some restaurants are already implementing programs where reusable containers, cups, dishes, and more are collected, cleaned, and reused. Instead of adding to more garbage, they’re creating jobs and encouraging the normalization of reusing instead of discarding.

Steps You Can Take to Be More Responsible During the Pandemic

We can do better. There are simple solutions, even while we’re still working from home and ordering in, that can help offset all this garbage. And some ideas are just about spending a little more time thinking about life outside our own quarantine bubbles.

  • Think about where your garbage will end up. Without reliable recycling, plastics will have a final resting place in the landfills and oftentimes the oceans where they can harm whole ecosystems. In fact, in 2010 alone, the NOAA estimated that 8 million metric tons of plastic ended up in the Earth’s oceans.
  • Work with groups that help to educate businesses and municipal governments about improving policies and encouraging others to be “throw-away-free”. This simple checklist from the nonprofit Upstream shows how much businesses can save by eliminating items like toothpicks, individually-wrapped condiments, plastic drink-stirrers, and other items from their restaurants.
  • Can’t get away from a toss-away item? Swap plastic for a biodegradable material, like bamboo, wood, or plant-based products. They might cost a bit more (for now) but they won’t sit for thousands of years in your local landfill. Or carry your own set of reusable cutlery, chopsticks, or even a reusable straw with you to use at a restaurant or on-the-go.
  • Instead of a plastic single-use water bottle, bring your own reusable bottle for a drink of clean tap water. Yes, you may have to get a paper to-go cup at the coffee shop for a while, but most water fountains where you can fill a bottle are still available, and actually require your own drinking vessel. Keep the habit of filling your water bottle on-the-go, and that’s one more way to stay engaged with environmentally friendly actions.
  • Clean instead of toss items at home. Switch out paper products like napkins and paper towels for cloth versions you can wash to clean. Soap and water are great ways to keep clean, and we’re all washing our masks after every use, anyway, right?
  • Support businesses that support greener initiatives, either financially with a purchase or by word-of-mouth. Especially in the communities we call home, keeping our spaces clean and green makes the most sense in a time when we’re trying to stay healthy.

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