While COVID has had some positive effects on the environment (cleaner air and clearer waters), it’s had the opposite effect on plastic usage. With many grocery stores banning reusable bags and containers, and coffee shops like Starbucks rejecting reusable cups, plastic use is at an all-time high. Not to mention, many areas that previously banned single-use plastic have lifted their bans during coronavirus. Plus, we’re all using plastic-laden, disposable PPE at an inconceivable rate.
So, what can we do? Can we bounce back from this? And how big is the problem really? While a completely Plastic Free July probably isn’t possible during COVID, we can arm ourselves with tips and truths to choose better and bounce back from the plastic pandemic when this is all (blessedly) over.
P.S. in honor of Plastic Free July, we’re giving you 20% OFF SITEWIDE with code RECYCLE!
A new pandemic-fueled era of plastic waste
Plastic pollution was already a major concern pre-pandemic, with 13 million tons of plastic entering the oceans every year (and cosmetic packaging as the number one contributor to plastic production in the world). But now in the era of COVID, plastic production is out of this world – it’s increased by about 250 - 300%. Most of this extra plastic comes from face masks, face shields, plastic barriers, plastic gloves, hand sanitizer bottles, and other PPE, which while definitely necessary, is still plastic that has to end up somewhere. And where it usually ends up: in our oceans and waterways.
Experts worry specifically about masks and gloves, since they can easily be mistaken for jellyfish by sea turtles and other marine life, or can entangle and trap them, much like plastic bags do. Divers are already finding masks, gloves, and hand-sanitizers on beaches and in oceans all over the world.
But this is only temporary, right? There can’t be that much plastic created in a few months. Well to put it in perspective, France alone has ordered 2 billion disposable face masks just to meet their immediate needs. Now multiply that by every other country on the planet – it’s an inconceivable number of plastic items that’ll fill our landfills and enter the oceans.
And beyond the necessary PPE, plastic is surging from our isolation addiction to takeout and delivery, the renewal of plastic bags in grocery stores, and our online retail therapy purchases that come heavily packaged in layers of plastic. Yes, we have to find some way to soothe our boredom and anxiety, but eventually our oceans will be paying the price.
Plastic regulation (and some recycling) is on pause
Pre-pandemic, legitimate progress was being made to reduce plastic usage - many governments around the world had banned (or had scheduled bans on) single-use plastics. And many major brands like Unilever, Pepsi, Coca Cola, and Nestlé had committed to using only reusable, compostable, and recyclable plastics by 2025.
But now, as we navigate the worst health crisis most of us have ever seen, these commitments are being put on pause. Most plastic bans have been temporarily lifted as concerns over reusable packaging mount. That means plastic reigns supreme, and even plastic bags are back in fashion.
To make matter worse, many cities have suspended or severely limited recycling operations during CO-VID to reduce outbreaks in recycling facilities. Instead, they’re sending recyclables straight to the landfill. This means more plastic waste, but it also means that more virgin plastic will be produced since recycled plastic isn’t available.
Are plastics actually safer than reusable options?
So, why do we think that single-use plastics are more hygienic or safer than reusable options? This messaging mostly comes from the plastics industry; whose interests are always to sell more single-use plastic. They’ve harnessed COVID fears and lobbied the government and other organizations to classify plastics as the safest, most hygienic option.
Is it true though? It doesn’t seem so. A New England Journal of Medicine study found that coronavirus can actually live longer on plastics (up to 3 days) than on other materials like paper, cloth, and cardboard (less than 24 hours).
And beyond just the immediate health threat of coronavirus, plastics are a long-term health risk for both us and our oceans. Once plastics finally break down into smaller pieces in the ocean, they get ingested by marine life and eventually ingested by humans. Why is this harmful? Scientists are concerned about the chemicals added during manufacturing, plus bacteria that stick to microplastics passing through wastewater plants which end up in our bodies.
Will this plastic resurgence continue post-pandemic?
Ok so some of this plastic is necessary and unavoidable during the pandemic, but can we return to our plastic-shunning ways once this is over? We don’t really have a choice if we want our oceans to stay alive!
But how do we regain the momentum now that single-use-plastics are no longer seen as sinful? Most importantly, we as consumers need to keep holding brands and governments accountable for reducing plastic waste. And as individuals, we have to make daily choices to avoid plastic wherever we can.
It’s definitely hard to keep every issue front of mind, especially when we’re living in the year of the surreal, but now’s the perfect time to recommit to our low-waste ways and #saynotoplastic wherever possible!
What you can do on the daily to reduce plastic usage
A lot of the usual tips like carrying reusable bags, reusable coffee cups and water bottles are still relevant if your local area accepts them. If not, it might mean being more proactive to prevent plastic waste. Plus, let’s talk how to protect yourself from the pandemic without piling up more plastic.
INVEST IN REUSABLE OR LOW-WASTE PPE
- Make your own reusable mask or purchase a few reusable, washable masks from sustainable, small-scale brands that you can cycle through.
- Use cotton gloves or wash your hands thoroughly and use hand-sanitizer regularly after touching common surfaces.
- Purchase hand sanitizer in recyclable or reusable bottles (surprisingly hard to find). The best low-waste option we found is packaged in a recyclable glass bottled with a recycled (but not recyclable) plastic cap; not perfect, but a step up from regular hand sanitizer packaging. And bonus - it’s vegan, cruelty-free and full of only clean, gorgeously nourishing natural ingredients.
CONSIDER ALL YOUR RECYCLING OPTIONS
Check if your city is actively recycling during COVID – some cities are returning back to normal faster than others. If not, think about storing your recyclable packaging until recycling is up and running again (if you’ve got some space). Or, look into Terracycle, a company that specializes in repurposing, reusing, or recycling hard-to-recycle items.
Visit this site for updates on recycling operations in your area during coronavirus.
CARRY IT OUT OR CAMPAIGN
If you’re just picking up a few things at the grocery, carry them out sans-bag and put in a reusable bag when you get to the car. Or, many shoppers have successfully campaigned their local grocery stores to allow reusable bags once – it’s worth trying at your local store.
MAKE YOUR OWN MORNING PICK-ME-UP
While so many of us love our morning latte from a bona fide barista, now’s a great time to start perfecting it at home! You’ll save money and definitely save lots of cups from entering the landfill.
NO MORE DISPOSABLE WIPES
Most disposable wipes contain plastic and will only wind up as microplastics in our oceans. Instead, opt for cloth options and wash regularly in hot water!
FILL UP AT HOME
While many water fountains and bottle fill-up stations are shut off at the moment, let’s take the time to fill up at home before we leave. Use your own bottles and #justsayno to bottled water!
For all your everyday items from beauty to cleaning products, choose sustainably packaged, low-waste, recyclable options that won’t add to our landfills.
SAY YES TO PRODUCTS THAT MULTITASK
Invest in products (and look through your own collection) for beauty products that multitask. Ex: You can use our crystal eyeshadows all over the face as blush, highlighter, eyeliner, or even as a brow filler! And vice versa – diamond highlighters and crystal blushes as high-wattage eyeshadows!
For more tips on plastic reduction + how to recycle all types of plastic, read our other Plastic Free July blog!
- ĀTHR Beauty xo