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9 ways we can avoid plastic during the pandemic (and after)

by Wayfinders Now

As many aspects of our everyday lives have come to a standstill during the Covid-19 pandemic, the global climate fight, too, faces a major challenge since many plastic reduction efforts around the world have stalled, resulting in a huge uptick of plastic waste around the world:

Fears about the virus spreading on surfaces prompted several states to temporarily ban reusable grocery bags, sending single-use bags flooding back into the marketplace. Major legislation aimed at reducing plastics packaging has stalled as lawmakers’ priorities shifted elsewhere. Disposable masks and gloves have become the harbingers of pandemic life, along with plastic take-out food containers and the debris of Amazon packages. Meanwhile the plastics industry ramped up its lobbying, urging federal agencies to declare the sanitary benefits of disposable plastics, and arguing that plastic bag bans went against public health.

“It’s all on hold’: how Covid-19 derailed the fight against plastic waste” by Erin McCormick

*Our posts may contain occasional affiliate links, which just means we might mention stuff we believe in and actually use, so if you try out something linked from our posts, we’d receive a small kickback but there’s no added cost to you.

As the world turns to single-use plastics to combat the coronavirus, a “glut of discarded single-use masks and gloves is washing up on shorelines and littering the seabed,” compounding the plastic pollution problem that threatens marine life and oceans.

Photo by Marta Ortigosa on Unsplash

This increase in single-use plastic usage is especially concerning since we know that only 9% of plastics ever made have been recycled and, according to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, if we continue at this rate of usage, our total output is estimated to quadruple by 2050.


Plastic pollution and environmental injustice

The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) argues that petrochemical facilities (known as cracking plants or “crackers”) pose both environmental and social justice problems since they’re disproportionately located near communities of color and low-income and marginalized communities. These petrochemical facilities also create a ton of ethane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and pollutes our air. Over the next decade, plastic could contribute as much climate pollution as 300 coal plants. 😳

We are also beginning to see people—sometimes referred to as “climate refugees”—who are forced to leave their home region due to erosion, severe storms, and sea levels rising as a result of climate change.

In other words, climate change, which is exacerbated by plastic pollution, poses threats to everyone’s health and well-being by poisoning the air, oceans, and food chains, but especially threatens vulnerable communities.

Sundarbans: The Next Climate Refugees” from The Atlantic

And at a time when so many of us may feel overwhelmed and may be struggling—with the concurrent pandemics of Covid-19, unemployment, food insecurity, and systemic racism —tackling plastic pollution can easily feel less crucial and relevant.

However, in “Racism Is Killing the Planet,” Hop Hopkins (director of strategic partnerships at Sierra Club) eloquently reminds us of the interconnectedness of these struggles:

…I want to share another lens from which we can view this moment. I really believe in my heart of hearts—after a lifetime of thinking and talking about these issues—that we will never survive the climate crisis without ending white supremacy. Here’s why: You can’t have climate change without sacrifice zones, and you can’t have sacrifice zones without disposable people, and you can’t have disposable people without racism. 

from “Racism is Killing the Planet” by Hop Hopkins

This World Economic Forum article notes that, given the global crisis with Covid-19, “the current increase in single-use plastics is understandable, but we also need to think about our planet’s long-term health.”

In particular, single-use plastics and disposable items like masks, gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer, etc.—especially for vulnerable communities like patients, health care workers, and anyone potentially handling medical waste, such as sanitation workers—is understandable during this pandemic.

Thankfully though, there are still ways we can cut down on single-use plastic, even during the pandemic.

1) Reusable bags vs. single-use plastic bags

Globally, one million single-use plastic bags are used every minute, yet only 1% of plastic bags are recycled each year. Another sobering fact is that a single plastic bag can kill multiple animals because once a carcass decays, the plastic bag that killed the animal can reenter the environment and choke or trap another animal.

In the meantime, the plastics industry continues to claim that disposable plastics are more sanitary for public health. However, as this Guardian article puts it, “Despite the fact the virus survives longer on plastic compared to other surfaces and a lack of evidence that disposable items are any safer than reusable ones, many businesses are refusing to accept reusable containers, such as coffee cups.”

But are reusable bags safe to use right now?

This statement signed by over 115 scientists, academics, and doctors from 18 countries reassures us that, in fact, reusable systems can be utilized safely during the pandemic by employing basic hygiene and protective measures:

Based on the best available science and guidance from public health professionals, it is clear that reusable systems can be used safely by employing basic hygiene. Below are the key facts to keep in mind….To prevent transmission through objects and surfaces, one can assume that any object or surface in a public space — reusable or disposable — could be contaminated with the virus. Single-use plastic is not inherently safer than reusables, and causes additional public health concerns once it is discarded.

from the “Health Expert Statement Addressing Safety of Reusables and COVID-19”

In other words, using a single-use plastic bag isn’t necessarily safer at all than a reusable one!

However, if reusable bags are not currently allowed where you live, the Surfrider Foundation suggests that you “consider asking for your purchased items to be placed back in your cart so you can bag them yourself in your reusable bag outside the store.”

We also have a post, “Zero-Waste Groceries for Sailboat Life”, that offers additional tips on how to bring home less plastic on those grocery runs.

2) Wear a reusable cloth mask when possible

According to the Mayo Clinic, cloth masks “can help reduce the spread of the virus by people who have COVID-19 but don’t realize it.”

So, unless your profession requires disposable masks, wearing a reusable cloth mask (or face covering) instead is a great alternative since cloth masks can be washed and reused, plus they’re easy to find or make.

Michael wearing a homemade cloth mask.

3) Buy items in bulk and refill containers to cut down on plastic packaging

Did you know that, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, plastic packaging alone accounts for nearly half of global plastic waste?

So another way to reduce your plastic footprint is by buying certain things in bulk. For instance, cleaning supplies and toiletries are two great areas where you can avoid or reduce plastic packaging.

In our post, “4 Swaps for a Zero Waste Bathroom (or Sailboat Head),” we mention the pluses of switching to a recycled toilet paper made by the Australian company, Who Gives a Crap—an option we buy in bulk that isn’t wrapped in plastic and didn’t involve the consumption of trees, contamination of water, or use of chemicals.

This article, “Truly eco-friendly shampoo & body wash (healthy & plastic-free),” by Citizen Sustainable offers a great breakdown of suggested plastic-free soaps (and why buying bar soap vs. liquid can save waste), as well as a list of what ingredients to avoid, and why.

Cat in an empty Who Gives a Crap box
Our cat, Bowie, gives Who Gives a Crap a paw up too.

4) Just-add-water options

Products that require adding water also tend to last much longer.

For wiping surfaces, we use a 50/50 vinegar-and-water mixture that we divvy into glass spray bottles, so a large jug of vinegar typically lasts for months. *Note: For disinfecting surfaces during the pandemic, we’ve also been using rubbing alcohol.

We use Dr. Bronner’s Sal Suds Biodegradable Cleaner (one gallon) for dishwashing, hand soap, laundry, and heavier jobs. We love that it’s a multi-purpose cleaner and you only need to dilute a small amount (a couple teaspoons per gallon of water), so a gallon lasts several months!

Dr. Bronner’s – Sal Suds Biodegradable Cleaner (1 Gallon)

5) Take-out and food delivery orders

With so many lockdowns in place, many restaurants are not accepting reusable containers and have switched to takeaway and delivery services to stay in business.

If you’re ordering food for take-out or delivery, find out if the restaurant offers compostable containers and check out this fantastic guide by Plastic Free Places about compostable takeaway packaging options and tips. It’s also important to note, however, that compostable take-out containers can come with their own set of tradeoffs and some consider them a problematic alternative to single-use plastics.

You can also search for participating restaurants in the Ocean Friendly Restaurants program, which involves sustainability criteria, such as no styrofoam, no plastic bags offered with take-out or to-go orders, and utensils are provided only upon request.

And if you’re ordering food on an app or calling ahead, let them know that you want to opt out of plastic utensils, condiment packets, and straws.

6) Simplify your personal care routine

Can you swap any personal care products (skincare, shower, cosmetics) for package-free or low-package options?

If you’re curious about this process, see what happens when a writer, Farrah Penn, replaced her skincare and shower products in plastic containers over the span of 30 days and traded them for products that produced zero waste.

To make the transition easier, more and more personal care brands are adopting zero waste or low-plastic packaging options, such as Ethique (plastic-free, 100% compostable) and Lush (35% of products have no packaging).

We’ve started using reef-safe sunscreens made by Raw Elements, which come in recyclable/reusable tins—and little goes a long way!


Raw Elements Face and Body Certified Natural Sunscreen 

7) Adopt the 5 R’s of zero waste

Zero waste expert Bea Johnson—whose family has been living a zero waste lifestyle since 2008—urges us to not give up the good work towards living with less plastic and waste, even during the Covid-19 pandemic:

Johnson is urging people sheltering at home to take time to consider living with less stuff and less waste. It’s good for the planet and for you. “The great advantage of zero waste or the zero waste lifestyle is that it makes you highly self-sufficient and highly adaptable” she said.

from ABC7 News, “COVID-19 challenges zero waste lifestyle, expert Bea Johnson says don’t give up!”

In this article, Johnson describes the five R’s of zero waste—Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot (and she recommends only in that order)—and includes several swaps we can make right now in spite of the pandemic.

Cover of Bea Johnson’s book, Zero Waste Home

8) Online orders

Not surprisingly, with most people staying at home and away from physical stores during the pandemic, online orders have surged, with Amazon dominating the U.S. e-commerce sales at 38%.

But in the U.S. alone, packaging waste—mainly from plastics—accounts for 30% of American household trash and is on the rise.

And globally, plastic packaging accounts for the largest chunk of our plastic consumption:

Graphic: Estimated consumption of plastic by end-use sector
Infographic from “The plastics issue we seem to ignore” (original source: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made”)

The NRDC advises: “Though buying online sometimes has a lower carbon footprint than shopping in a store (skip the express delivery option, if you can), online shipments are still chock-full of plastic.” 

If you’d like to support alternatives to Amazon, try finding local retailers and check out this helpful guide for how to buy everything from technology to beauty to books without supporting Amazon’s dominance.

For Amazon orders, specifically, here are two ways you can use reduce packaging waste:

  • Consolidate your order with Amazon Day Delivery: Add items to your cart throughout the week and upon checkout, select the Amazon Day option and choose your preferred delivery date:
Opting for fewer boxes for Amazon Prime orders

Frustration-free packaging: According to Amazon’s site, “Frustration-Free Packaging is packaging that is made of 100% recyclable materials, easy to open, and designed to ship products in their original packaging, which eliminates the need for an additional shipping box. Amazon provides this option at no cost to customers.”

Admittedly, this frustration-free option isn’t easy to find on Amazon’s site (ironically, a little frustrating!). To search for items that qualify for frustration-free packaging, bookmark this link here. Once you pick an eligible item, make sure “Item arrives in packaging that reveals what’s inside” is selected at checkout.

9) Use SHiFT to learn about everyday swaps and ways to hold the plastics industry and corporations more accountable.

The SHiFT Method was created by Emily Penn, ocean advocate and co-founder of eXXpedition, a series of all-women sailing voyages to research the impact of plastic and toxic pollution in our ocean.

Shift helps you to “select how, in what aspect of life and where you want to create a shift, from sea to source. From simple consumer choices, to more complex industry actions, you can explore ideas that create long term change.”

from Shift.how

Okay, y’all, we have a lot of good work to do! We hope this article offers ideas that feel feasible and galvanizes our collective commitment to taking care of each other and our environment.

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2 comments

Eco Local August 4, 2020 - 3:20 am

This is a great article and genuinely helpful. I also like the SHIFT method you outlined too.

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Wayfinders Now September 1, 2020 - 9:51 am

Hi there! Thanks for reading and your kind comments especially means a lot coming from a zero waste expert like yourself. Your Etsy shop is great!

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