The Pandemic and Single-Use Plastics

What changed? Can we do even better than our “pre-pandemic” habits?

By Marty Hornick

Has anyone else noticed that one or two things have changed in our daily lives and in our world since the pandemic arrived?  If I dig really deep, I can come up with a few things we do differently. Let’s see… social visits, travel plans and driving routines, how and where we work, shopping online, shopping nervously in person, delayed dental and medical visits, postponed weddings and cancelled events, Zoom-everything – from meetings to memorials, how we dress/shave/bathe, how we eat (and how much) and how we drink (and how much!). And if you have kids? I can’t imagine! Okay, I could more easily list the things that have NOT in some way changed! Many of these things are gradually normalizing, but it’s hard to know if all of them will ever go back to pre-pandemic ways. And in some cases, that’s probably good!

Some of these changes have had at least a temporary benefit on our environment and even our health (as long as you didn’t get COVID!) during the initial shutdown. Skies cleared in previously smog-soaked cities around the world, carbon emissions dropped dramatically for a short time, people sat in their cars less and got outside more, and ate (ostensibly healthier and cheaper) meals at home, and bought out every last bike in the country, taking up biking as a new hobby or transportation to avoid public transit (we’ll see if that takes the same path as most New Year’s Resolutions!). But there’s no question that some changes have not been helpful, and we must look at how to move past them.

Companies of all types, but primarily food-service businesses, have made major adjustments in how their products are served–and more importantly what they are served in. In keeping their businesses alive, and to give their customers what they crave, those that had typically served indoors with reusable plates, glasses and silverware were suddenly forced to provide all these things in single-use (read: “landfill destined”) containers. Unfortunately, the cheapest and most readily available material for this is plastic or—even worse for the environment, polystyrene (Styrofoam). Even when served on-site outside, most food has been served in disposable products for our “safety”. And businesses whose service was “to-go” or for delivery typically sent it off in plastic bags, with plastic utensils, plastic or Styro bowls and cups, plastic straws, paper or plastic plates, paper napkins, plastic/foil packets of sauces. And when in doubt, always err up on quantity! None of those items are recyclable in today’s recycling world, so it’s on a downhill race straight to the dump! Or worse, dispersed across our lands and into lakes and oceans.

Ironically, in the years leading up to the 2020 pandemic, California and other states had started to make progress on reducing single-use plastics—and many conscientious businesses had gone even further, encouraging customers to bring reusable containers and cups and, of course, bags. Stores increasingly had bulk dispensers for many products. But COVID fears basically gave the okay to forget about prior regulations and to ignore the massive uptick in plastic trash. Reusable bags were suddenly prohibited; your personal travel mug no longer refillable. 

Seizing an opportunity in a clearly self-serving move, the Plastics Industry Assoc (PIA) jumped on uncertainty to further scare consumers (and thus businesses), by referencing in misleading ways studies from non-COVID or non-SARS research about surface transmission to justify the use of more plastic disposables. They lobbied the CDC and administration to recommend single-use plastics and to bypass laws intended to reduce their use (an ongoing mission of the PIA).  Though there was no way to be certain at the time, multiple studies have since found that the likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 through surfaces such as shopping bags and reusable cups during incidental contact was basically zero… especially if other precautions were being followed, such as handwashing and keeping things clean.  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently stated: “Currently there is no evidence of food, food containers, or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19”.

Even prior to the pandemic, consumption of single-use products—plastic and other materials with their own different environmental costs—was staggering. Though, difficult to quantify at this time, it’s estimated that consumption of single-use plastics increased 5-10% during the pandemic. Try to get your head around these numbers:

  • Globally, about 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year.
  • Roughly half of that is for single-use purposes.  (The average single-use plastic is used for 12 minutes, but lasts for centuries).
  • We use 500 million plastic straws and 100 million plastic utensils every day!
  • Over 500 billion single-use cups and 25 billion Styrofoam cups are used globally each year.
  • Over a trillion plastic bags (some estimates are as high as five trillion) are used globally (100 billion in the US alone) each year.  That’s 32,000 every second. Or 131,000,000 per hour!
  • Ten million tons of plastic ends up in the ocean each year.
  • One million birds and at least 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastics each year.
  • During the pandemic, roughly 129 billion facemasks and 65 billion disposable gloves are used every single month.
  • In total, there are 8.5 billion tons of plastic on Earth right now (that’s the same weight as 55 million jumbo jets!)  75% of that has become trash.

So, where do we go from here? As the vaccine takes effect and restrictions are eased, we may head toward pre-pandemic routines. It may take a while to ramp down our single-use habits, just as it will for our eating and drinking habits. And the first step is always to admit we have a problem… “Hi, my name is Earthling, and I’m a plastiholic”. But we can get on the wagon now… break the addiction and turn it around. Many “to-go” and delivery orders end up being eaten at home or somewhere that has utensils, bowls, cups, sauces, etc anyway. Businesses can implement policies to ask whether customers want all those disposables, napkins, sauce packets, etc – or the disposable bags they stuff them in.  When ordering on the phone or in person, ask that no extra items/utensils are added to your order. You can bring your own clean reusable bags, and refuse any unnecessary future trash a restaurant offers.  Some businesses are starting to go back to filling your reusable cups, bowls and plates.  Keep a bag in your car with some reusable items, plates (or sealable glass container), utensils and cloth napkins. Make it a habit to ask if the business will fill your reusables when you order.

We cannot rid the earth of the 8.5 billion tons of plastic already created, most of which is now trash in our rivers and oceans, along our roads, and jamming our landfills. But we can choose to not add to this immense pile. Each of us can commit to do a little better.  Better for the environment, for ourselves and community, and for the future generations who are yet to order their first takeout meal.

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