Can we stay home and stay safe, yet reduce single use plastic during the pandemic? Choices, alternatives and demanding change.
The Covid-19 pandemic has penetrated every aspect of our lives.
As much as I hate to write or even admit it, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. We’re still far from a vaccine, and even when it does arrive, distribution around the world could take a long time.
In the meantime, we must continue to try keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. That means we should use a mask and sanitizer, wash our hands frequently, practice social distancing, avoid touching our face and not go out to crowded spaces except when absolutely neccesary.
Unfortunately though, that also means a significant increase in our single use plastic consumption.
Personal protective gear – masks, hand sanitizers, surface disinfectant bottles – are typically non-biodegradable. Staying at home means more deliveries, e-commerce and food takeaways, which often come in non-recyclable plastic. Perhaps we’re discarding a lot of things we would’ve normally re-used, out of the worry that the virus might be lurking around on all surfaces.
As we gear up to face the pandemic for the long haul and adapt to life in the new normal, we need to be aware that a single use plastic catastrophe might silently be brewing.
How has the pandemic impacted single use plastic consumption?
I guess we only need to look at our personal consumption to guess the anwer.
Discarded plastic masks are already washing up on Hong Kong’s beaches. In the US, single use plastic usage is estimated to have gone up by a whopping 250-300%. Athens has reported a 150% increase in the amount of plastic in the general waste stream.
And in India, where waste management is already a huge issue, the fight against single use plastic has taken a backseat.
In the midst of this unprecedented pandemic, the world has lost the momentum we gained over the past couple of years to reduce single use plastic. Plastic bans and alternatives have been rolled back.
Infact, plastic lobbyists are claiming that single use plastic is a hero in the new normal!
Is it important to reduce single use plastic while we’re in a pandemic?
I’m sure we haven’t forgotten the disturbing visuals of corals covered in single use plastic, turtles choked to death by plastic straws stuck in their nostrils and dead whales found with tonnes of plastic waste in their stomach.
Single use plastic has long been a global crisis. But it’s more important now than ever to reduce single use plastic, for three main reasons:
- Biomedical waste that washes up on beaches or into the oceans can easily be mistaken as food. Fish, turtles, dolphins and other marine animals can choke on gloves, get entangled in the elastic bands of masks and get injured by face shields. With all this plastic filling their stomachs, they can starve to death.
- Many recycling plants have been shut down over fears of the virus spreading through infected surfaces. That means what little plastic did get recycled / upcycled is now ending up in the landfill or being swept away into the ocean. It’ll leach into our groundwater and soil, and enter the food chain. Scientists are researching what that really means for our health.
- Plastic pollution disproportionately affects low income countries with poor disposal facilities. Much of the west’s plastic waste used to go to China, and is now being sent to other countries in Southeast Asia. Even in rich countries, waste tends to be dealt with in poorer neighborhoods, causing public health problems. When incinerated, low grade plastic releases micro particles that have been linked to cancer. When sent to landfill, it often leaches into the groundwater. So yes, plastic pollution is very much a social justice issue.
Also read: 5 Easy Steps Towards Plastic Free Living
So, can we reduce single use plastic while we’re in a pandemic?
Given that health and safety trump all else right now, here are some things worth noting:
- A study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that Covid-19 stays on plastic and stainless steel for 2-3 days, on cardboard for upto 24 hours and on copper for 4 hours.
- According to the WHO, using a mask, frequently washing hands, social distancing and not touching the face are the most effective preventive measures. Surface disinfection with 70-90% alcohol is effective.
- The WHO doesn’t recommend using gloves in public spaces.
In the early days of the pandemic, I decided that personal safety trumped my single use plastic consumption. In just a few weeks, the amount of plastic waste I was disposing became alarming.
So I spent a lot of time researching safe alternatives, and creative hacks to keep my single use plastic consumption as low as possible:
Use reusable multi-layered cloth masks instead of use-and-throw ones
Masks are important for our collective safety, but that doesn’t mean we need plastic masks that come out of plastic covers.
According to the WHO, the CDC and Johns Hopkins University, those of us not interacting directly with positive or suspected positive people (i.e doctors, nurses etc), are safe enough using non-medical cloth masks. N95 and surgical masks are use-and-throw masks made of non-biodegradable plastic – taking upto 450 years to degrade! Instead, we can opt for multi-layered cloth masks, which can be washed and reused.
I bought a set of five cloth masks from Pulkar – an organisation in Dehradun that supports women’s livelihoods. I find cloth masks far more breathable, comfortable (instead of elastic bands around the ears, they have to be tied behind), stylish and affordable.
After each use, I sanitize and quarantine them for upto 48 hours (the virus is expected to survive on cloth fabric about as long as cardboard). And when I’m doing my laundry, toss them into the washing machine.
Also read: How to Indulge Your Wanderlust at Home
Opt for eco-friendly e-commerce sellers who don’t wrap everything in plastic
I think I’ve lost some of my sanity constantly outraging at Amazon and Urban Platter deliveries that arrive smothered in plastic for no good reason. I mean, why do non-breakable things like a pressure cooker whistle, a pan and even a pillow need to be wrapped in plastic?!
I limit using e-commerce for exactly this reason (aside from usually being somewhere too remote to receive deliveries and having no permanent address to receive them either). But now, in the midst of a pandemic with disrupted supply chains, closed shops and safety concerns, e-commerce is very much a part of my life.
Over time though, I’ve learnt to identify sellers that are conscious about not using single-use plastic:
Search for eco-friendly products
We needed a bunch of air tight containers so I searched for eco-friendly storage containers and zeroed in on the Star Work glass jars. Their products had great reviews and emphasized being environmentally friendly. And sure enough, despite being made of glass, the jars were delivered without any single-use plastic!
On the other hand, the couple of things I ordered from Amazon Basics came wrapped in layers of plastic despite being non-breakable. Ugh.
Now whenever we need anything, I use “eco” or “eco friendly” as a suffix while searching for it to identify plastic-free sellers.
Read reviews that mention the packaging
When I’m unable to find any eco-friendly sellers, I check if the reviews mention packaging – either while generally reading reviews or by doing a quick Ctrl+F search.
Leave public feedback for sellers, both positive and negative
I know it sounds like one more thing to do. But unless brands and sellers hear that we value plastic packaging free products and deliveries, they’re unlikely to make any changes.
Every time I receive an order, I try to leave public feedback on the e-commerce platform mentioning the packaging. Praising it if it is single-use plastic free. And highlighting the unnecessary use of plastic, which is more often the case.
Amazon has the option of seller feedback as well as product review. The former seems to be private feedback, though it does impact rankings on Amazon. I try to fill in both.
If enough of us do this, my hope is that Amazon will take notice and include a feature to rank packaging. Perhaps even a way to filter products with eco-friendly packaging!
Insist that informal home deliveries are single-use plastic free and return the packaging immediately
I’ve switched from frequenting organic farmers’ markets wherever in the world I am, to ordering vegetables and fruits on whatsapp from local farmers or shops that stock their produce. Given that social distancing is hard at supermarkets and grocery stores, it’s prudent to have things delivered at home as much as possible.
That has one negative side effect though – plastic bags.
When I place an order, I always insist that they not be delivered in plastic bags. Thatched baskets, cardboard boxes and cloth bags are all good alternatives. In any case, I try to immediately empty the products into my own containers and return the packaging to (hopefully) be re-used.
This is also a great way of ensuring that I have the least possible interaction with a surface that might have been touched by multiple hands and possibly be carrying the virus. If I accept the packaging, I’d have to find a way of discarding it – increasing both, my exposure and trash.
Carry a washable cloth bag and reusable containers for takeaway
As India and the world slowly start to open up and emerge into a new “normal”, I’ve been thinking of how I can be both safe and environmentally-friendly.
I’ve been carrying reusable cloth bags for several years, and I think they’re our best bet now during the pandemic. Carrying my own bag means I don’t have to expose myself to plastic bags that have passed through multiple hands, on which the virus can survive for 2-3 days! Instead, I get home, empty my cloth bag and wash it with soap and water.
I’ve decided that no matter how much I crave diverse food during the pandemic, I’ll only ever order from places that deliver in eco-friendly packaging. In Hyderabad for instance, Le Terrassen Cafe has been using non-plastic single use cutlery and glass bottles. In Goa, Saraya has initiated a daily meal plan where lunch is delivered in returnable steel tiffins.
When I really want food from elsewhere – a slice of indulgent vegan chocolate cafe for instance – I will continue to carry my own resuable container. Again, relatively safer, washable and better for the planet.
A “sanitize, quarantine and reuse” routine rather than an open and throw routine
When I heard that the virus can survive upto 72 hours on plastic surfaces, my first instinct was to open every plastic bag of grocery (unfortunately I didn’t have access to an organic zero waste store), empty it into a container and toss the plastic bag into the bin.
But each time I did that, I felt horrified. Especially when the bag was a resealable bag that I would normally have re-used.
I then read safety recommendations by North Carolina State University, and was relieved to learn that it’s okay to re-use bags as long as they are cleaned and disinfected.
Now, instead of the ‘open and throw’ routine, I wash the outside of any plastic bag that enters the house, dry it and store it in a cupboard. Empty the contents in a container when needed. Sanitize it again if I’m feeling extra paranoid, quarantine it for a few days further and re-use it.
Experiment, make and grow more at home
Some of us have a lot more time at hand with no social outings and travelling on the cards. I’ve been finding some solace in the kitchen, as well as in growing vegetables, herbs and microgreens.
I never imagined that someone like me, with a marked lack of cooking ability, could bake a good loaf of bread. After a disastrous first time, it turned out surprisingly easy and tasty!
It’s been fulfilling to make, bake and grow my own. And it also means I’m consuming more home-grown, organic, chemical-free food, and creating less waste, especially single use plastic.
Segregate waste and consider eco-bricking
I know I’ve been talking about segregating waste far too often on my blog and Instagram. But I just can’t wrap my head around the fact that the vast majority of us still doesn’t choose to segregate!
All it takes is two separate bins for wet and dry waste. The wet waste can be composted, even if you live in an apartment (consider the Eco Bin). Dry waste should ideally go to a recycling facility. Else it can be given away to a local ragpicker who is likely to salvage as much as possible. Further segregating dry waste into glass bottles, cartons etc can make processing of the waste easier.
Unfortunately though, single-use plastic is such low grade plastic that it can’t be recycled. If burnt, it releases toxic chemicals. If sent to landfill, it ultimately leaches into the groundwater or lands up in the ocean. The best solution so far – besides reducing consumption of course – might be to create ecobricks. Then pool them together with a community of people and build any needed structure.
Also read: Quarantine Recycling: Staying green under quarantine
What else can we do?
Advocate for policy change
Even though the fight against single-use plastic looks pretty dismal during this pandemic, I feel hopeful about the possibility of policy action since it’s already happening in Thailand. In Bangkok, an awareness campaign to segregate waste is already underway, along with setting up of public collection points for plastic waste to be recycled.
Can this happen in India? With a combination of aware, conscious, motivated citizens demanding action from local, state and central governments – absolutely.
Ask e-commerce platforms to introduce a packaging rating and filter
We collectively need to ask e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Flipkart and Urban Platter to introduce a feature to rate the eco-friendliness of sellers and products. A filter to sort products by planet-friendly packaging could make it easier to identify brands that care about reducing plastic waste. A rating system can allow consumers to easily share feedback.
The best way to do this is using social media, and tagging your local e-commerce providers.
According to UN Environment, nearly 13 million tonnes of plastic enter our oceans every year. In the Mediterranean Sea alone, the WWF estimates that the equivalent of 33,800 plastic bottles are dumped into the water every MINUTE.
That’s in an average year. I shudder to think what 2020 means for the oceans, marine life, groundwater and our own health.
Have you noticed changes in your plastic consumption during the pandemic? What steps are you taking / going to take to reduce single use plastic?
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I’m the founder of this award-winning travel blog about offbeat and sustainable travel, and author of the bestselling travel memoir, The Shooting Star.
In 2011, I quit my full-time job, and gradually gave up my home, sold most of my possessions, stored some in the boot of a friend’s car and embraced a nomadic life.
Connect with me on Instagram to hear more about my adventures and personal journey.