In 2019, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) projected a 40% increase in plastic pollution over the next decade. Notably, the WWF calculated this projection before the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, plastic pollution has increased exponentially. Experts warn that this increase may leave lasting environmental consequences long after the pandemic subsides.
So what can you do to reduce packaging waste in the age of coronavirus? The following guide outlines the problem and offers several practical solutions.
The Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on Plastic Pollution and Packaging Waste
The coronavirus has significantly changed consumer and business behavior regarding packaging and waste.
Fearing contamination, businesses, and consumers have shifted toward single-use products. State and local governments have also rolled back or delayed legislation that aimed to reduce plastic use.
Before the pandemic, many state and local governments had banned single-use plastic grocery bags. Consumers adapted to these bans by bringing their reusable shopping bags. However, concerns about coronavirus contagion have led many stores to prohibit reusable bags.
Before the pandemic, restaurants and coffee shops had implemented incentive programs to encourage customers to bring reusable containers from home. In the wake of the pandemic, though, most have discontinued these incentive programs.
Plastic waste in the restaurant industry is soaring. To survive the pandemic, many restaurants shifted to delivery and takeout. At the height of the pandemic, to-go orders increased by 67%.
In addition to plastic containers and bags, takeout orders usually require single-use utensils. These disposable forks, knives, and spoons wind up in landfills. Many eventually litter the floors of the world’s oceans.
This is especially true as recycling efforts have decreased. During the pandemic, many municipalities have imposed restrictions on plastic recycling. As petroleum prices continue to fall, manufacturing plastics has also become less expensive, reducing the financial incentives for recycling.
Finally, medical waste, including PPE, has increased dramatically. Medical facilities are using disposable masks and gloves at unprecedented rates. At the height of the pandemic, Chinese hospitals produced six times the usual daily amount of medical waste.
Of course, PPE use and waste are not limited to medical settings. During the pandemic, masks and gloves have become standard accessories of everyday life. Many state and local governments now mandate masks in public places.
Like other waste, these products eventually end up in landfills and on beaches and oceans.
Tips for Protecting Yourself and the Environment during the Coronavirus Pandemic
The seeming ease with which consumers and businesses have rolled back sustainability efforts is discouraging. However, it doesn’t have to be. The changes seen thus far show that people adapt. Human beings are flexible and creative. When they notice a problem, they find ways to solve it.
Early in the pandemic, people learned about the problem of infection. In turn, they took steps to protect themselves. Now, people are learning about the issue of packaging waste. Once again, they can take steps to address it.
Wash Your Hands
One of the best ways to reduce waste and protect yourself during the pandemic is to wash your hands. For ordinary daily activities, proper handwashing offers better protection than wearing gloves. Wearing gloves improperly can increase the risk of virus transmission.
Wearing gloves unnecessarily also contributes to unnecessary waste. Simply remembering to wash your hands after a trip to the store can reduce this waste.
Use Reusable Masks
According to health experts, cloth masks provide adequate protection for ordinary activities of daily life. Therefore, they recommend reusable cloth masks for the general public.
Following these recommendations saves disposable and medical-grade PPE for healthcare workers. It also reduces waste.
Sanitizing Your Reusable Mask
Protecting yourself with reusable masks requires using these masks properly. Reusing a mask sefely involves sanitizing it.
Experts recommend cotton masks as the best and most durable. Cotton masks can withstand laundering with bleach or other disinfectants. They also dry well.
Wash a reusable cloth mask by following these steps:
1. Take off removable parts, including any interior filters.
2. Place the mask or masks in a mesh laundry bag.
3. Make sure your washing machine is set to the highest temperature. Adequate disinfecting requires temperatures of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit. If your device has a “sanitize” cycle, use that.
4. Use bleach or a detergent that includes a disinfectant.
5. Dry the mask on the highest temperature setting your dryer allows. Most dryers don’t reach temperatures needed for proper sanitizing. Therefore, sanitizing dryer sheets can offer extra protection.
If you must handwash your mask, use a solution of bleach and hot water. Include five tablespoons of bleach for each gallon of water. Allow masks to soak in this solution for at least five minutes before rinsing.
You can also allow your mask to dry in the sunlight. If you do, keep the mask exposed to the sun’s heat for at least an hour. However, leaving a mask in the sun for a full day is best. It’s also a good idea to flip the mask over halfway through drying.
If you use the sun to dry your mask, be sure to hang or lay it on a sanitized surface. Designating a mask-drying station is a good practice. Remember to disinfect this station regularly.
Storing Your Mask
It’s generally unnecessary to wear a mask if you’re alone or with family in your personal vehicle. During these and other times, find a place to store the day’s mask safely.
Many people hang their masks from the rearview mirror between uses. However, experts advise against this practice. Hanging a mask can allow contaminants on the outside of the mask to spread.
A better practice is to fold the mask so that the inside surfaces are touching.
Use Reusable Shopping Bags, If Possible
At the beginning of the pandemic, many stores prohibited reusable shopping bags. Recently, however, some of these restrictions have eased. Some stores now allow consumers to use reusable shopping bags if they pack their groceries.
Consumers should, thus, check the policies at local stores. If you’re a business owner, consider ways to let customers use reusable bags while keeping your employees safe.
Use Quality Plastic Packaging That Can Be Wiped Off
Amid the pandemic, many consumers worry that the packages they bring into their homes may harbor the virus. To protect themselves, many people wipe these packages with sanitizing products.
Others transfer products from their existing packages. With certain packaging materials, moving a product may be the only option. This is because lower quality plastics may not withstand exposure to disinfectants.
It can even be dangerous for consumers to use disinfectants on lower quality food wrappers. Lower quality packaging is subject to tears and holes. Even intact, it may allow external contaminants and cleaners to seep into the product.
As a business owner, you can choose to protect your customers with high-quality overwrapping and exterior film. These products are available in a range of thicknesses. Each covers products from contaminants. They also allow consumers to disinfect packages safely at home.
As a consumer, you can educate yourself to find out what products you can safely disinfect. Perhaps your local grocery store uses high-quality meat packaging. If so, you’ll likely be able to wipe down that surface. Doing so can significantly reduce packaging waste.
If you must transfer a product from its existing package, you can still minimize waste. One option is to repackage products in recloseable bags. Alternatively, you might transfer your purchases to use reusable containers.
Turn Your Waste Green with Biodegradable Trash Bags
The pandemic has changed human behavior. Many of those changes have increased the waste we produce. Some of these changes may be unavoidable. Still, we can counter this waste by saving resources in other ways.
Choosing to use biodegradable trash bags is an ideal way to go green during the pandemic. We have more trash now than ever. It is, thus, more important than ever to use environmentally responsible trash bags.
Recycle What You Can and Advocate for Innovative Solutions
Even as municipalities cut back on recycling, efforts to promote a circular economy continue. A circular economy is one that seeks to reduce waste by reusing resources. Recycling is an essential component of the circular economy.
As a private individual or business owner, you can educate yourself about what you can recycle. You can also take care to prepare your recyclables for pickup properly. Recycling procedures can vary. It’s best to check with your local government or waste management provider.
Finally, you can advocate for policies and research that allow recycling to continue despite the pandemic. Scientists are testing innovative methods to sanitize disposable masks. If successful, these and other efforts can significantly reduce waste. You can contact your representatives to advocate for increased funding for innovative projects like this.
The Pandemic Is a Challenge, but It Can Also Be an Opportunity for Positive Change—Don’t Waste It!
The challenges of the global coronavirus pandemic are unprecedented. The pandemic has affected all aspects of life. Many of these changes and challenges are detrimental. The environmental impact of increased packaging waste is one example.
When people apply creative thinking, though, challenges can provide opportunities for positive change too. There are steps you can take to reduce waste during the pandemic. These include choosing high-quality packaging materials. They also involve using reusable materials safely.
As you investigate packaging options for your business, count on U.S. Packaging and Wrapping. Contact us to request a quote today.