COVID-19’s Plastic Problem:
An Ecological Ancestor or an Environmental Wake-up?
Without a strategy to mitigate plastic pollution, Generation Anthropocene's ecological ancestors will be plastic. A study by the PEW Charitable Trusts (2016) expects that by 2040, an additional 430 million metric tons of plastic will foul our oceans, outweighing that of all marine life combined. As you know, many states already legislated to outlaw plastic straws, plastic bags, and other single-use products. Real progress was taking place. That is until COVID-19 consumed us.
To stay safe and keep surfaces and products sterile, we've had no other choice than to upend the efforts pre-COVID-19. Now, single-use product consumption has exploded. As a result, the amount of plastic waste escaping collections and heading for the waterways and oceans has increased to critical "forever" numbers. This pandemic forced a complete change to our daily routines, albeit reversing the trend we were all working to fix. Now, we dump more than one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. But from where is it all coming?
Masks and Gloves Galore!
When this is all over, one shocking statistic we'll discover is the use and disposal trends of PPE in countries like New Zealand versus those that couldn't control the pandemic. Until then, we've got some concerning issues to manage. Some people are flushing their PPE down the toilet, damaging local treatment plant machinery and increasing community sanitation costs. Others recklessly toss them like cigarette butts into gutters, on streets, and along roadsides.
Not only is this unsafe for workers, but it’s also a substantial ecological concern. As a result, wildlife becomes a kind of pandemic bycatch, suffering increased mortalities from the carelessness. So, what can you do?
- When possible, and unless guidelines change, use washable cloth masks.
- Responsibly dispose of PPE in the trash. They’re not recyclable or street art.
- Help clean up using the Marine Debris Tracker App from NOAA. It works for all inland and coastal waterways.
In our click-buy world, we’re used to having answers readily available in the palms of our hands. So, when the pandemic hit, none of us were prepared for an answerless Internet. Over time, scientists have studied the virus and learned about its mutations to inform the public better.
No data suggest that the transmission of COVID-19 can happen via plastic bags (Hale et al., 2020). This makes single-use food containers, plastic utensils, Styrofoam cups, and plastic straws particularly attractive to the “To-Go/Carry-Out” services most of the restaurants around the country now rely upon to stay open. The downside is that, even in states with plastic legislation, this resurgence in plastic pollution is increasingly harmful. And when plastics break down into microplastics, it doesn’t just kill birds and whales; it can enter crop soils, too.
Image credit: FoodPrint, 2020
COVID-19 will eventually go away, of course, through widespread vaccinations. But leaving future generations with our mess doesn’t seem like a reasonable response. Here are a few steps you can take to help:
- Skip the sides. Help prevent little ramekins of catsup and packets of hot sauce from winding up in landfills, entering waterways and our oceans.
- If you don’t need a bag, don’t take it.
- Buy reusable straws from SWZLE. Keep them in your glove box or purse in their secure, portable case.
- If using a delivery service, type “no plastic utensils” or “skip the excess plastic” in the comments line.
- Skip the receipt or get a digital one. Thermal paper has BPAs, which are harmful to you and marine life.
Internet shopping has become a lifeline, especially for those with health concerns. To them, it’s a necessity. But all that extra packaging causes more trash: tape on boxes, plastic air cushion packets, Styrofoam peanuts, etc. Not only that, similar to frontline workers, warehouse employees are also put at risk. That, and if we ignore the mom-and-pops just down the street, we may see more neighbors and neighborhoods in decline and more big business on the rise.
- Communicate with the shipper to request plastic-free packaging and curtail wasteful practices like using boxes too big for the product.
- Buy from online stores like The Wally Shop, where your packaging is entirely reusable.
- Choose one shipment over several shipments and buy in bulk when possible.
- Ask yourself if you need the item right now or if it can wait for a trip out. Plus, when you support your local businesses, you’re instantly saving on that extra packaging.
Image Credit: Next Page, 2018 and Getty Images, 2020
Fortunately, Some Things Haven’t Changed
Like you, we at SWZLE have become increasingly aware and concerned by annual levels of plastic pollution. Our manufacturing, business goals, and voice build and strengthens the movement away from single-use products.
The number of voices raising the alarm about the plastic problem has substantially increased over the last several years, too. People are now palpably aware of the pollution levels on earth, including personal contributions and footprints. As a community, we have two options to curb the amount of plastic littering our planet. The easiest and most accessible way to innovate social change is via manufacturing alternatives to single-use plastic. That said, no single strategy will solve our plastic problem.
How Else Can You Remain Environmentally Friendly During the Pandemic?
First things first, keep yourself informed and be patient. Scientific studies with peer-reviewed results don’t happen overnight. But it’s a chance to start making incremental plastic alternative changes at-home, room by room.
- Bathrooms are dens of plastic, but you can easily switch to shampoo bars, toothpaste, etc.
- Wash and reuse grocery store containers.
- Take photos of plastic pollution and share it on your social media pages.
- Switch to sustainable cleaning products throughout your home.
- Wash your hands and use sanitizer instead of single-use plastic gloves when possible.
- Refill small hand sanitizers instead of buying new ones—bulk options save money.
Scientists, researchers, and various institutions in conjunction with PEW Charitable Trusts (2016) studied cradle-to-grave plastic manufacturing waste. They found that companies need to make equal changes on the “cradle” and “grave” side of manufacturing to limit plastic waste in production, over-packaging, and then through such things as refill services. You can probably think of ten or twenty times you received something in the mail you thought was packaging overkill—one illuminating part of the study.
Another part of the study looked at leakage points inside the market. They focused on
- Prevention of leakage
- Balancing outcomes from the triple bottom line (social + economic + environmental)
- Inclusion of equal health and safety standards
PEW Charitable Trusts (2016) concluded that the “Business as Usual” approach is not working and must be changed. With an ever-growing population, swelling consumption rates, the upsurge in non-recyclable plastics, and more, we’re risking not just the sustainability of a world economy, business, and socioeconomics, but our health, too. We’ll see increases in cancer, endocrine interruptions, and reproductive issues.
Image Credit: PEW Charitable Trusts, 2016
With that, we’ve got to start working together to facilitate a circular economy for social plastic. Entrepreneur David Katz calls this idea the “Bitcoin for the Earth,” whereby marginalized nations can gather plastic in exchange for money. Not only does this leverage them to build a better life, he says, but it allows them to create a more significant social impact.
Social impact solutions such as this are especially needed in developing countries, as one oceanographic team found. After studying 192 countries globally, they discovered that countries with growing economies had the least efficient ways to manage concurring waste (Wernick, 2015). But we’re not letting the US off the hook here because that study also concluded that we’re in slot #20 for waste mismanagement.
Right now, we have a fragmented system of manufacturing across the board. Companies like SWZLE and The Wally Shop have already successfully taken the cue, but many industries are unfocused or unregulated. And there should be an economic reason enough to want to make the change. If people and manufacturers aren’t concerned about the tonnage lost to the environment, the financial return in billions of dollars each year should be enough to bring concerted change toward sustainability.
Unless the plastics entering the economy can be circled back for reuse, we’re on precarious standing with the health of our oceans, marine life, and the economies (like ours) that rely on them for food, finance, and shelter.
While there’s no single solution to ending plastic pollution, each of us can do our share to make sure we’re not excessively contributing to the problem. All it takes is a few extra steps to make measured differences for tomorrow’s generations. After all, if we don’t fix it, our grandchildren and this earth will suffer from it.
If you have more ideas on how to prevent plastic pollution in times of COVID, we’d love to hear from you! Click on SWZLE and drop us a note.
Written by: Amy Wolkenhauer