Waste during COVID-19: a mixed bag

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted and changed our lives in countless ways. Some of those changes have challenged our ability to handle and reduce our waste. Some changes have presented new opportunities. Here are some of the results, both good and bad:

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Alex Truelove
Director, Zero Waste Campaign

Author: Alex Truelove

Director, Zero Waste Campaign

(215) 630-7250

Started on staff: 2017
B.M., University of Michigan; M.M., McGill University; M.S., University of Michigan

Alex directs U.S. PIRG’s campaign to transform the way we produce and consume “stuff” in our country. He is working to pass zero-waste policies that will improve public health, protect the environment, and cut down on the amount of trash we throw out every day, including a campaign to ban polystyrene cups and containers in states across the country.

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted and changed our lives in countless ways. Some of those changes have challenged our ability to handle and reduce our waste. Some changes have presented new opportunities. Here are some of the results, both good and bad:

The Good:

  1. We appear to be wasting less, in general. Starting in mid-March, as the American economy slowed, waste generated from the commercial sector fell sharply. Waste from homes and residences increased because people were sheltering in place, but not by as much as commercial waste declined. In other words, we’ve generated less waste overall. Through April and May, major haulers have reported overall waste volume decreases in the double digits.

  1. Paper is being recycled at higher rates. Many of us continue to work from home and stock up on essentials. As a result, demand for recycled paper-based products remains -- products like tissue and toilet paper, cereal boxes and cartons. Meanwhile, offices and manufacturing facilities are operating at less-than-full capacity, so primary paper products like office paper and cardboard boxes are being generated and disposed of less. Because of this unusually high demand and low supply, bales of office paper and cardboard are selling to recycled paper mills like hotcakes, to recycle into our essentials. If more people continue to work from home and use less paper, we could see this trend continue or become the new normal.

  1. Major consumer goods companies now support fees for plastic. Less than a month ago, the consumer brands association, which includes Coke, Pepsi and Clorox, emerged in support of resin fees for virgin plastic

Why is this a big deal? Virgin plastic, a byproduct of the heavily subsidized fossil fuel industry, is often too cheap to pass up for manufacturers who might otherwise opt for recycled plastic instead (more on that below). Adding an extra fee to virgin resin, much like a carbon tax, could shift incentives toward recyclable options. While it might not be the reduce-first solution we prefer, it signifies a sizable shift in philosophy, and an admission by some brands that our system is designed to fail. PlasticNews.com seemed to agree.

The Bad:

  1. The return of plastic bags. Across the country, bans on single-use plastic have been suspended or delayed. Some municipalities and grocery stores have also suspended the use of reusable bags, despite zero evidence that reusable bags transmit COVID-19.

Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of its Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, told the Boston Globe: “It's unclear what, if any, danger the mix of popular cotton, canvas, and nylon bags actually pose. Pardon the expression, but it seems like grasping at straws.”

The rush back to single-use plastic bags may be particularly ill-advised given that COVID-19 lasts three times longer on plastic than on paper-based material, according to the New England Journal of Medicine.

  1. Some of the worst kinds of waste are increasing. In a more socially-distanced world, we’re throwing away more single-use plastic in the places you’d expect: food and home delivery packaging, and personal protective equipment (think masks and gloves).

 

Innovative solutions to reduce these forms of waste do exist -- among them reusable mailers, disinfectable protective equipment, and options to refuse disposable utensils and condiment packets. Unfortunately, those solutions haven’t been established at scale, or aren’t offered by major online retailers and food delivery apps. We have work to do.

  1. Manufacturers still need to embrace recycled plastic.

In recent years, less than 9 percent of the plastic we use has been collected for recycling. Most of our plastic waste isn’t recyclable in the first place, but a fraction of it has a market. Of that fraction, some is exported where it may or not be turned into a new product. What’s left is only incorporated into new products if companies choose to use it. When virgin plastic, a byproduct of oil and gas, is as cheap as it has been recently, companies are even more likely to abandon the recycled stuff and opt for the most wasteful option. 

Conclusion

There are always lessons to be learned. In the future, we can ditch our disposable ways. Instead, we can reduce our waste and create a more resilient society, especially for times like these. We can build thoughtful, hygienic systems for reusable protective equipment, foodware and packaging. By design, these systems can conserve materials and also protect against supply shortages.

Right now, we can move in the right direction by continuing to campaign for real solutions to reduce the most harmful and non-recyclable single-use plastics, namely shopping bags and polystyrene foam containers. We can also make companies responsible for the end of life of their products. 

That way, our next update will be guaranteed to be more ‘good’ than ‘bad.’

 

Top photo credit: frantic00 via Shutterstock

Alex Truelove
Director, Zero Waste Campaign

Author: Alex Truelove

Director, Zero Waste Campaign

(215) 630-7250

Started on staff: 2017
B.M., University of Michigan; M.M., McGill University; M.S., University of Michigan

Alex directs U.S. PIRG’s campaign to transform the way we produce and consume “stuff” in our country. He is working to pass zero-waste policies that will improve public health, protect the environment, and cut down on the amount of trash we throw out every day, including a campaign to ban polystyrene cups and containers in states across the country.