What The Pandemic Means For Zero-Waste


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Before the pandemic hit, our journey to zero-waste was thriving. We were filling up our standard-size trash can every two weeks or longer, I had eliminated plastic in various areas of my life, and we had a solid composting habit. Overall, consumption was down and I was feeling accomplished. It wasn't easy, but we'd made measurable progress.

That all changed when the pandemic hit. We stopped taking our reusable bags to the grocery store, and suddenly we were filling up our trash can once a week. The pandemic affected my moods, so I started chasing those dopamine hits and treated myself to items that contained plastic, like some yummy cold-pressed juices and a fancy new shampoo. I lost the energy to cook, so we ordered takeout and frozen meals, which often have non-compostable packaging and come in plastic bags and styrofoam containers.

I was reminded why most of us live a plastic-ridden, consumeristic life — it's just so much more convenient. And in an increasingly difficult world, convenience is worth more than gold.

Overall, plastic consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic is on the rise[efn_note]Adyel, TM. 2020 Sep 11. "Accumulation of plastic waste during COVID-19." Science. Retrieved from https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6509/1314.[/efn_note]. This is due not only to increased production of PPE, particularly disposable PPE, but also to the regression back to using disposable products in industry and daily life.

According to the article by Adyel, the US is on track to generate a year's worth of medical waste in two months. Over in Singapore, they reported an additional 1400 tons of plastic waste generated from increased takeout ordering during their 8-week lockdown over what is normally produced.

The increase in disposables is happening everywhere and rapidly. The pandemic has already started destroying the progress we've made, especially once oil prices dropped so much that virgin plastic became cheaper to produce than recycled plastic[efn_note]Brock, J. 2020 Oct 5. "The Plastic Pandemic: COVID-19 Trashed the Recycling Dream." Reuters. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/health-coronavirus-plastic-recycling/[/efn_note].

I'm not where I was a year ago, and I tell myself I will get back there. My concern right now needs to be taking care of myself. We all need to take care of ourselves. I don't always have the energy to scrub out my styrofoam containers and drop off my plastic bags at the recycling center; I have to admit that.

Even though I'm not where I was, I'm still doing something, and that still counts. Even if it's not much. So if you're only doing a little or nothing at all, I just wanted to tell you that it's okay. I still feel the overwhelming guilt and it tells me that I care, and caring is a good thing.

But I also remind myself that the burden to reduce waste and combat climate change shouldn't (and can't) fall completely on the individual; it's corporations and governments that need to reduce their footprint first and foremost, because they are giants compared to common folk[efn_note]Starr, D. 2016 Aug 25. "Just 90 companies are to blame for most climate change, this 'carbon accountant' says." Science. Retrieved from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/just-90-companies-are-blame-most-climate-change-carbon-accountant-says[/efn_note].

So if you're like me and feeling guilty for the trash you're generating, remember that change needs to start from the top, too. Don't hate yourself for throwing out a pair of old sneakers instead of paying $100 to have it recycled (this is a thing I have actually considered) because one pair of well-loved sneakers sitting in a landfill is not the same as a literal metric ton of CO2 getting dumped into the atmosphere. But that sounds like a discussion for another post.

If you're on this journey too, just do what you can. The pandemic has made this a difficult year in many ways, and I wouldn't blame you at all if the environment was the furthest thing from your mind right now. I think whatever you do is a win. Here are a few manageable ways to reduce your waste and consumption in this stressful state of the world:

  1. Carry a reusable mask: Although restrictions are different wherever you go, it's always a good idea to carry a mask with you just in case you need one. If places require a mask they will likely have disposable ones available for free, and carrying your own will reduce that need.
  2. Set limits on ordering takeout: This will not only reduce how much trash you send to the landfill, it will save you money, too! If you don't have much energy to cook, consider cooking a big batch of meals (8 servings) just once a week. If you live with roommates or have a pod, you can each make a dish and trade a few servings among each other so you're not eating the same thing every day. Otherwise, you can freeze any extra servings. Soup is usually an easy meal to make!
  3. Meditate: Meditation is free (you don't actually need an expensive app to meditate!) and can put you a better mindset that will make it easier to avoid overspending and choosing uber-convenience. Start with just 5 minutes daily. Focus on your breath and repeat a simple word like 'one' or 'om' over and over again.

Even these small contributions are helpful. Sometimes you start small and sometimes you start over. Keep trying and you'll get back to where you were; eventually, you'll pass where you were. Count the little wins and keep going. We will continue on being kind to the Earth, but first we need to be kind to ourselves. What little low-waste wins are you celebrating today?

if you know you grow

© if you know you grow 2023.