Using lots of plastic packaging during the coronavirus crisis? You’re not alone

Video: Getty Images / happydancing; Alex Potemkin

Video: Getty Images / happydancing; Alex Potemkin

In eight years, US environmentalist and social media star Lauren Singer had never sent an item of rubbish to landfill. But last month, in an impassioned post to her 383,000 Instagram followers, she admitted the reality of COVID-19 has changed that.

"I sacrificed my values and bought items in plastic. Lots of it, and plastic that I know isn’t recyclable in NYC (New York City) recycling or maybe even anywhere … why would I go against something that I have actively prioritised and promoted?"

Takeaway meals at home during Coronavirus quarantine.

Image: Getty Images / yulkapopkova

Image: Getty Images / yulkapopkova

The singer wrote that as the seriousness of COVID-19 dawned, she stocked up on items she’d need if confined to her home for a long period – much of it packaged in plastic.

Her confession encapsulates how the pandemic has challenged those of us who are trying to reduce our waste. Many sustainability-conscious people may now find themselves with cupboards stocked with plastic bottles of hand sanitiser, disposable wipes and takeaway food containers.

So let’s look at why this is happening, and what to do about it.

Woman wearing protective mask during coronavirus with groceries in plastic bags

Image: Getty Images / Pollyana Venture

Woman wearing protective mask during coronavirus with groceries in plastic bags

Image: Getty Images / Pollyana Venture

Woman wearing protective mask during coronavirus with groceries in plastic bags

Image: Getty Images / Pollyana Venture

Woman wearing protective mask during coronavirus with groceries in plastic bags

Image: Getty Images / Pollyana Venture

Cause for hope

Sustainability and recycling efforts are continuing. Soft plastics recycler Red Cycle is still operating. However many dropoff points for soft plastics, such as schools and council buildings, are closed, and some supermarkets have removed their dropoff bins.

Boomerang Alliance’s Plastic Free Places program has launched a guide for cafes and restaurants during COVID-19. It shows how to avoid single-use plastics, and what compostable packaging alternatives are available.

As the guide notes, “next year the coronavirus will hopefully be a thing of the past but plastic pollution won’t be. It’s important that we don’t increase plastic waste and litter in the meantime.”

Video and image: Getty Images/ monkeybusinessimages; AlenaPaulus

Video and image: Getty Images/ monkeybusinessimages; AlenaPaulus

What to do

We can expect the environmental cause will return to the foreground when the COVID-19 crisis has passed. In the meantime, reuse what you have, and try to store rather than throw out items for donation or recycling.

Talk to takeaway food outlets about options for using your own containers, and refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries. Use the time to upskill your coffee-making at home rather than buying it in a takeaway cup. And look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging, such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags.

Above all, be vigilant about ways environmental protections such as plastic bag bans might be undermined during the pandemic, and voice your concerns to politicians.

Associate Professor Daiane Scaraboto, Dr Alison Joubert and Dr Claudia Gonzalez at The University of Queensland St Lucia campus.

Associate Professor Daiane Scaraboto, Dr Alison Joubert and Dr Claudia Gonzalez at The University of Queensland St Lucia campus.

Associate Professor Daiane Scaraboto, Dr Alison Joubert and Dr Claudia Gonzalez at The University of Queensland St Lucia campus.

This article was originally published in The Conversation.

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