The recent massive influx of single-use disposable waste, often plastic—masks, gloves and hand sanitizer bottles in addition to quantities of single-use medical supplies—has literally transformed the world. In recent weeks, Covid litter in public spaces has increased, at home and abroad, with more people flocking outdoors after months in confinement.
Big Plastic: taking advantage or saving the day?
This new wave of waste has elicited arguments over health and safety, both in personal health terms as well as questions of sustainability. The usefulness of single-use masks, gloves and other plastic products in the prevention against and treatment of coronavirus is undeniable. Still, a surge of medical waste is a disposal headache. Further, the necessity for the resurgence in other single-use items such as plastic bags, to-go containers, cups and cutlery continues to be hotly debated.
This wave of plastic would not be as big a deal if waste and recycling systems were equipped to handle them. But in many places, they simply are not.
Both the plastics industry and environmentalists have come out swinging, demonizing the other side. Where reusables have been assigned a ‘risky’ status by plastic corporations, environmentalists have shamed Big Plastic for pushing their products as a means of interrupting anti-plastic policy. Active and developing plastic bag and other single-use bans have been placed on hold with groceries, restaurants and other retailers embracing disposable packaging since their reopening following initial Covid closures. Many groceries stopped permitting reusable bags (though many now allow you to pack your own bags); few restaurants, cafes and coffee shops allow customers to use reusable cups or takeout containers. Some container redemption programs for bottles and cans, programs that have been staples of various states’ sustainability goals for years, were shrunk or suspended back in March. In states such as California, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Oregon, where plastic bag bans were already in full effect, such policies have been temporarily lifted, allowing for an influx of plastic.
The theories supporting the rise in single-use disposables and the suspension of various sustainability efforts seem simple: Minimizing contact between people by minimizing contact between material items might just limit the spread of this virus and possibly save lives. An item that goes straight from the vendor to the consumer to the trash, such as a plastic bag or paper coffee cup, should be safer from a personal and community health perspective. A reusable bag or cup that goes back and forth from the consumer’s home multiple times between washing might act as a vector. Sanitation is key.
What does science say?
Studies of Covid-19’s persistence on various surfaces is still limited, even months into this crisis.
Early studies have considered the virus’s lifespan on metals, wood, plastic and glass. On some plastics, for instance, the virus can persist up to three days if not sanitized. This compares to four days on wood (like decking) and a matter of hours on stainless steel and copper. (One microbiologist recently pointed out in The Lancet that early tests were conducted with viral loads that far surpass real-world situations.)
As for your cotton or fabric bags? Studies are still limited on such surfaces. That said, no evidence yet exists that suggests reusable bags are a considerable means of spreading the disease.
In general, the spread of coronavirus through material surfaces is significantly less likely than through person-to-person touch or through the air via coughs, sneezes, singing and laughter.
So why all the back-and-forth between single-use supporters and reuse enthusiasts if the science is still shaky? My theory: Argumentative types love a science vacuum.
I have no qualms with shops and retailers who elect to require disposables. Although the jury may still be out on just how likely reusables are to spread the virus, to expect businesses to trust people in their cleanliness habits is probably expecting too much. These businesses have a commitment to protecting their own employees, and if our sustainability habits are to be set aside while the health of these employees is prioritized, maybe that is okay.
Meanwhile, I hope this new wave of plastic is not forever, and I will continue doing what I can to reduce, reuse and recycle.
Paper waste also on the rise
Plastics are not the only waste category to see a striking rise since COVID-19 hit the US. With many stores shuttered in the early months, and many families still electing to stay home and forgo the exposure risks of shopping in public, mail-order shopping has seen a massive boom. With more online retail comes more related waste—cardboard boxes, padded plastic bags and envelopes of all shapes and sizes. Thankfully, cardboard and paper remain, as always, a valuable recyclable.
The local scene: a clear shift
As permits coordinator for Salt Lake City’s Waste & Recycling Division, I have witnessed a few notable changes in the waste and recycling scene up close. As was corroborated in a Salt Lake Tribune article in May, our team witnessed a clear shift in where garbage and recycling were coming from.
Residential garbage and recycling volume was on the rise, with a clear increase in corrugated cardboard boxes and other packaging aligning with a burst in online retail.
Multifamily properties have seen their own spike in garbage and recycling generation.
Businesses have seen less and less, particularly during those early months of COVID-19. And with almost all city events indefinitely postponed or canceled, the only event-related waste and recycling has been that coming off our Downtown Farmers Market, Liberty Park Market and, recently, the Tuesday Market.
More recently, we have begun to see life slowly return to the way it was pre-coronavirus as businesses re-open with new safety plans in place.
We already have and surely will continue to see this reflected in waste and recycling, as residents and their waste return to these once-abandoned places.
Of course, all these baby steps toward a new normal will be taken with a sense of trepidation, as we remain alert for new surges in the virus.
What’s a zero waste warrior to do?
In short, do not fret over what you cannot do; instead, focus on what you can do!
Assuming your grocery is letting you bring in reusable bags, be ready to pack up groceries (and perhaps use self-checkout) yourself.
Just because your favorite restaurant may not let you use your personal containers for to-go orders doesn’t mean you can’t refuse a bag altogether or, at the least, refuse the plasticware and extra napkin if you’re just bringing it back home to eat. (Tell them “no utensils’ and that you’ll be bringing your own bag when you call in your order.)
Disposable masks, gloves and other personal health care items are trash—not recyclable. Place them in the waste bin (green in Salt Lake City), not the (blue) recycling bin.
Opt for sturdy materials you can wash and wear again.
Plastic bags, which are not recyclable in curbside bins in Salt Lake, at least have alternative recycling options through the bins offered in groceries and supermarkets.
When hand-washing isn’t an option, go for the bottle of sanitizer, not the individually wrapped wipes, wherever possible.
One more time for the people in the back: Masks and gloves are not recyclable in the Salt Lake area, nor anywhere else in Utah!
If you have made the switch to online retail in your social-distancing efforts, be sure you reduce, reuse and recycle wherever you can. Clean and dry cardboard is a highly sought-after recyclable material, but be sure to remove block Styrofoam, packing peanuts and other packaging materials as these are typically not acceptable in curbside recycling.
That said, most groceries will accept those plastic airbags and other stretchy plastic films in their drop-off plastic bag recycling containers. (Check with customer service at your store to verify.)
If you are receiving shipments in envelopes, take a closer look: Pure paper envelopes are recyclable in your curbside bin, but those yellow envelopes with bubble wrap on the inside are, unfortunately, not.
Purely plastic padded envelopes—the sort Amazon now loves—can usually be recycled with your grocery bags in the store receptacle.
The better option, as usual, is reuse, and envelopes are super easy to reuse.
Perhaps most important of all: Trust in recycling and be sure you are recycling right. Salt Lake City is now home to a new-and-improved waste management material recovery facility (MRF, pronounced “merf,” for short) that will allow for better sorting and cleaner recyclables. (See EnviroNews, this issue.)
That said, we will always depend on our residents to keep contamination out of the recycling bin.
If you need a refresher, check out SLCgreen’s website for recycling guides and other great information.
David Johnston is the permits coordinator for Salt Lake City’s Waste & Recycling Division. He is also on the board of the Utah Recycling Alliance, helping with education and outreach efforts.
Virtual Recycling Q&A
September 24, 4 pm
Have questions? Join David and the Utah Recycling
Alliance for a conversation later this month.
Learn more and sign up on URA’s Facebook page.