Zero waste is not the easiest life choice in the world. And that was before there was a pandemic running rampant all over the world. Suddenly, everything around us had the potential of giving us a life-threatening disease. People were afraid of handling anything that wasn’t wrapped in plastic, stores banned reusable containers and the medical waste in every country went through the roof.
The Tyee reported that in April this year, the city of Vancouver collected 3,500 tons of garbage from single-family residences. That’s a 28 per cent jump from April 2019. But when factoring in commercial loads, which have lightened with so many businesses shuttered, total waste was down 10 per cent in April, according to Metro Vancouver. Couple that with a recent study in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews that estimated a 40 per cent rise in packaging worldwide, due to the growing demand for takeout meals and grocery delivery, and a bigger picture (a bigger problem) emerges.
Saying that COVID-19 changed everything would be an understatement. Our waste problem didn’t change though, the narrative around has.
Despite the fact that coronavirus can survive on plastic up to 7 days, there’s a conviction that produce and other products wrapped in plastic will somehow carry less risk of passing on the disease. The prevention of contagion is the reasoning behind Starbucks no longer allowing customers brining their own mugs. It’s why bulk bins at supermarkets have been closed. Why everything has been packed in plastic.
Playing on that fear, Forbes wrote that “some members of the plastics industry are taking advantage of the fear and uncertainty around the pandemic to push suspensions or rollbacks of hard-won environmental measures to reduce plastic pollution. They’re claiming, ‘an abundance of caution’ as the reason to reinstate widespread use of single-use plastic bags”.
Yet, on June 22, over 100 scientists from 18 different countries published a statement explaining that reusable containers, cups and cutlery can be safely used during the Covid-19 pandemic, by employing basic hygiene.
Clearly there is a way for us to stay safe in the current situation and not give up the hard-won victories around sustainability and lowering the amount of waste we produce as a society.
Charlotte K. Williams, a chemistry professor at Oxford University, told the Guardian: “I hope we can come out of the Covid-19 crisis more determined than ever to solve the pernicious problems associated with plastics in the environment.
“In terms of the general public’s response to the COVID crisis, we should make every attempt to avoid over-consumption of single-use plastics, particularly in applications like packaging.”
Thankfully, zero waste stores, which are often local enterprises run by environment-conscious small businesses are already working to come up with alternatives that keep their customers safe, but don’t contribute to plastic waste. All to stay afloat in the current climate. Some offer additional containers that can be purchased in the store (like glass jars, reusable mesh bags etc.) or “rented” – where the small deposit for the container is refunded when the customer returns the container (which is later disinfected before being returned into circulation).
Some stores mandate hand sanitizer and masks for every customer in the store. Others eliminated the self-help and the option of browsing the store – with the clerk putting the requested amount of goods in the containers available in the store, which later can be returned.
This is the new reality we will continue to live in for the foreseeable future. The big corporations will continue to try and use this crisis to overturn the plastic bans in many countries around the world. Small, independent businesses will try to accommodate to the new reality, hopefully without compromising their environmental beliefs.
But, as always, it’s up to us – the consumers, to make sure we don’t lose the ground we’ve gained. We must continue to buy less and be more conscious about our purchases. Pay attention to the packaging and question it at every turn. Ask yourself if you need that new thing you have in your Amazon cart. Think whether you can buy it second-hand locally to prevent the additional carbon footprint of delivery. In your everyday grocery shopping, question the status quo, bring reusable bags and jars to smaller store, and keep asking if you can use them. Our post-COVID reality might not be as easy, but let’s face it. Being zero waste was never easy. Now we simply have a different set of challenges, but the goal has remained the same.
The consequences remained the same as well.
And all we can do is try every day to be better and more environmentally conscious than yesterday.