Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Using Lots of Plastic Packaging During the Coronavirus Crisis? You’re Not Alone

Popular
Using Lots of Plastic Packaging During the Coronavirus Crisis? You’re Not Alone
A man receives a food delivery in plastic bags at his home. Alex Potemkin / Getty Images

By Daiane Scaraboto, Alison M Joubert and Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos

In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.



I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn't recyclable in NYC (New York City) recycling or maybe even anywhere … why would I go against something that I have actively prioritized and promoted?

Singer wrote that as the seriousness of COVID-19 dawned, she stocked up on items she'd need if confined to her home for a long period – much of it packaged in plastic.

Her confession encapsulates how the pandemic has challenged those of us who are trying to reduce our waste. Many sustainability-conscious people may now find themselves with cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitizer, disposable wipes and takeaway food containers.

So let's look at why this is happening, and what to do about it.

Sustainability out the window

We research how consumers respond to change, such as why consumers largely resisted single-use plastic bag bans. Recently we've explored how the coronavirus has changed the use of plastic bags, containers and other disposable products.

Amid understandable concern over health and hygiene during the pandemic, the problem of disposable plastics has taken a back seat.

For example, Coles' home delivery service is delivering items in plastic bags (albeit reusable ones) and many coffee shops have banned reusable mugs, including global Starbucks branches.

Restaurants and other food businesses can now only offer home delivery or takeaway options. Many won't allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables which generate plastic waste. This means many consumers can't reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to.

Demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, they're also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.

And the imperative to prevent the spread of coronavirus means tons of medical waste is being generated. For example, hospitals and aged care facilities have been advised to double-bag clinical waste from COVID-19 patients. While this is a necessary measure, it adds to the plastic waste problem.

Cause for hope

Sustainability and recycling efforts are continuing. Soft plastics recycler Red Cycle is still operating. However many dropoff points for soft plastics, such as schools and council buildings, are closed, and some supermarkets have removed their dropoff bins.

Boomerang Alliance's Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during COVID-19. It shows how to avoid single-use plastics, and what compostable packaging alternatives are available.

As the guide notes, "next year the coronavirus will hopefully be a thing of the past but plastic pollution won't be. It's important that we don't increase plastic waste and litter in the meantime."

Old habits die hard

In the US, lobbyists for the plastic industry have taken advantage of health fears by arguing single-use plastic bags are a more hygienic option than reusable ones. Plastic bag bans have since been rolled back in the US and elsewhere.

However, there is little evidence to show plastic bags are a safer option, and at least reusable cloth bags can be washed.

A relaxation on plastic bag bans – even if temporary – is likely to have long-term consequences for consumer behavior. Research shows one of the biggest challenges in promoting sustainable behaviors is to break old habits and adopt new ones. Once people return to using plastic bags, the practice becomes normalized again.

In Europe, the plastic industry is using the threat of coronavirus contamination to push back against a ban on single-use plastics such as food containers and cutlery.

Such reframing of plastic as a "protective" health material can divert attention from its dangers to the environment. Prior research, as well as our preliminary findings, suggest these meanings matter when it comes to encouraging environmentally friendly behaviors.

Many people are using their time at home to clear out items they no longer need. However, most second-hand and charity shops are closed, so items that might have had a second life end up in landfill.

Similarly, many tool, book and toy libraries are closed, meaning some people will be buying items they might otherwise have borrowed.

What to do

We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.

Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.

Above all, be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.

Daiane Scaraboto is an Associate Professor of Marketing at University of Melbourne.

Alison M Joubert is a Lecturer in Marketing at The University of Queensland.

Claudia Gonzalez-Arcos is a Lecturer in Marketing at The University of Queensland.

Disclosure statement: The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

Reindeers at their winter location in northern Sweden on Feb. 4, 2020, near Ornskoldsvik. JONATHAN NACKSTRAND / AFP via Getty Images

Sweden's reindeer have a problem. In winter, they feed on lichens buried beneath the snow. But the climate crisis is making this difficult. Warmer temperatures mean moisture sometimes falls as rain instead of snow. When the air refreezes, a layer of ice forms between the reindeer and their meal, forcing them to wander further in search of ideal conditions. And sometimes, this means crossing busy roads.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

The Great Lakes, including Lake Michigan, experienced some of their warmest temperatures on record in the summer of 2020. Ken Ilio / Moment / Getty Images

Heatwaves are not just distinct to the land. A recent study found lakes are susceptible to temperature rise too, causing "lake heatwaves," The Independent reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Starfish might appear simple creatures, but the way these animals' distinctive biology evolved was, until recently, unknown. FangXiaNuo / Getty Images

By Aaron W Hunter

A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.

Read More Show Less
U.S. President Joe Biden sits in the Oval Office as he signs a series of orders at the White House in Washington, D.C. on January 20, 2021. Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

President Joe Biden officially took office Wednesday, and immediately set to work reversing some of former President Donald Trump's environmental policies.

Read More Show Less
Erik McGregor / LightRocket / Getty Images

In many schools, the study of climate change is limited to the science. But at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, students in one class also learn how to take climate action.

Read More Show Less