The Plastic Pandemic and its Environmental Cost

by Megan Kioulafofski
the plastic pandemic

All around the world, recycling efforts have taken a backseat during the COVID-19 pandemic, unleashing another type of beast – the plastic pandemic.

From our huge increase in disposable PPE, to not being able to bring our own sustainable bags when shopping, all these tolls that are taken in the name of public health are severely damaging the health of the environment. Single use plastic usage has increased by 20% during the last year pandemic — meaning we’re supercharging the already devastating path towards global warming and climate change. 

plastic use during covid19

So how can we combat the plastic pollution while still staying safe? It’s likely that many people just don’t realize all the small ways their plastic use is adding up, and the alarming environmental cost we will all have to pay. That’s why one of the best ways to combat the devastating effects of single use plastics is by being educated on how to reduce plastic waste during COVID-19.

For example, did you know that PPE is considered medical waste and can’t be recycled? Seeing as we’re on track to make a year’s worth of medical waste every two months, it’s essential that we as individuals take steps to minimize our contributions to the plastic pandemic, and its continuing collateral damage on the environment.

From wearing reusable masks to shopping sustainable brands, here’s how you can end plastic waste and do your part to reduce the environmental impact of COVID-19.

how to reduce the plastic pandemic caused by covid19

 How To Fight The Plastic Pandemic Caused By COVID-19

For many of us, tossing things such as plastic goods in a separate bin is as far as we get when it comes to recycling. However, it’s crucial that plastic get sorted out correctly to ensure that it doesn’t contaminate the rest of the recycling. Remember — not all plastic is created equal! 

One of the strongest ways to decrease the impact of your carbon footprint is to decrease the amount of plastic you use altogether. But since not too many people can drop plastic out of their lives entirely, it’s essential to at least be up to date with the best ways to reduce plastic use during COVID-19. And this includes also knowing the waste management rules and regulations imposed by the pandemic.

1. Take Your Own Bags 

It can take up to 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose in a landfill. Make a long term difference and reduce the environmental cost caused by the plastic pandemic by bringing your own reusable produce bags when shopping. However, since many stores are not allowing these types of bags right now due to current sanitary concerns, here’s what you can do – put your products back into your basket once you’re done checking them out, and place them in your bag once you’re outside of the store. Chains such as Trader Joe’s have implemented bagging stations outdoors so you can easily do this. 

Your impact: bringing your own bags can reduce the need for 1,500 plastic bags a year.

2. Limit Your Packaging From Takeout

With millions of people ordering takeout these days not only in the United States but all over the world, the impact of single-use packaging such as to-go boxes and cutlery has increased.  

To reduce the environmental cost of the plastic pandemic caused by COVID-19, choose eco-friendly options, such as:

      • Request a paper or compostable box. If not, you can try to ask for aluminum foil – most kitchens and restaurants have this!
      • Don’t ask for plastic silverware or napkins, and even request beforehand to not include it
      • Supply your own containers and reusable shopping bags to pick up food
      • Only ask for the condiments that are needed, or just use what you have at home 
      • Say no to a plastic bag 

Placing an order for takeout is one of the best options when it comes to eating out safely during the pandemic. But no matter if you pick up your food, or order food delivery at home, you can minimize the carbon footprint of your meal by being conscious of the plastic used. 

Your impact: Reduce your average waste by 400 pounds per year. This is as much as a gorilla’s worth of trash.

environmental cost of plastic bottles

3. Choose Water Bottles That Are Reusable 

50 billion water bottles made of plastic are purchased by American consumers each year. From these, only 20 percent get recycled. 

Using reusable water bottles is one of the simplest ways to reduce your carbon footprint, as more and more companies are coming up with eco-friendly solutions to combat the plastic pandemic.  Currently, you can find reusable water bottles that are able to keep your water cooler for a longer period of time, while also minimizing your need for plastics. 

Your impact: An average of 167 plastic bottles or $266 worth will be saved every year. 

environmental cost of the plastic pandemic

4. Decrease Single-Use PPE

The COVID-19 pandemic caused disposable PPE to increase 12x the normal amount. That’s because items like latex or disposable face masks are treated as medical waste, meaning that your entire recycling bin becomes contaminated once you throw them in. So, the amount of waste that PPE creates has a bigger impact that you might have been aware of.  

PPE that is single-use should be reserved for those who need it most such as hospital workers on the frontline, since they are better equipped to dispose of these materials properly. 

Disposing of even one percent of PPE improperly can lead to up to 20 tons of waste. This is almost equally to the weight of a fire truck. Be a part of the alliance to end the plastic pandemic by choosing only reusable face masks. These measures are not only meant to protect yourself, but the environment as well. 

Your impact: Save up to 365 disposable PPE masks a year.

5. Choose Sustainable Brands

An additional method of reducing your impact on the planet is to search for low-waste options while shopping. This includes: 

      • Choose brands that use sustainable manufacturing and reusable or compostable packaging
      • Select “Ship in the least boxes” options for multiple orders
      • Don’t shop with brands that are fast fashion
      • Go to stores that are secondhand

The fashion industry alone contributes with 85% of textiles to the landfills and 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions each year. This equals the amount of waste from one garbage truck per second.

But although sustainable brands are great, they are usually out of budget for most. A solution to this problem is to simply purchase fewer items. Jeans need 2,000 gallons of water to be produced while a shirt needs700 gallons. So buying less can really make a difference.  

Your impact: reducing your clothing impact by buying just one shirt or pair of pants a year, can save the same amount of water as an average monthly water bill.  

6. Reuse Your Disposable Bags

It may be inevitable that you use some disposable bags during the pandemic. Although disposable bags are single-use, you can still use them more than once. If you do bring home a disposable bag, make sure you reuse it for something in your home, like for example a trash liner.

Your impact: If you reuse a disposable bag even just once, you can cut back plastic bag usage by half and save 750 bags a year. 

If the plastic pandemic has you worried like us, please offer your support in reducing single use plastic waste and minimizing the environmental cost of COVID-19 on our planet. From using organic cotton shopping bags to limiting plastic use from takeout, small tweaks to your lifestyle could truly make a big difference. 

For more advice on how to live zero waste, follow our sustainable living blog or reach out to us on our contact page.

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