Rethinking Sustainability During a Pandemic

Rethinking Sustainability During a Pandemic

The world as we know it will never be the same. The Coronavirus made sure of that. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing, but it definitely takes some getting used to!

The information we’re given surrounding the pandemic is continuously changing. Rules and regulations regarding COVID-19 practices are updated on a daily basis so it’s hard to keep track of what’s considered safe and right. Since the pandemic started in 2020, the way we consume goods and products has drastically changed.

Plastic production has significantly increased due to a higher demand for disposable items, because these products are seen as safer and less likely to be contaminated by the virus. In fact, in 2020 the World Health Organization ordered a 40% increase in disposable personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, in order to keep healthcare workers safe. A marine conservation group called OceansAsia estimated that that this increase would lead to an excess of 1.5 billion face masks entering the ocean in 2021. The impact that this pandemic has had on the marine plastic problem alone is unbelievable.

This leaves many of us concerned about how to make sustainable choices, especially during a pandemic. When stay-at-home orders were given, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, online shopping, meal prep services, grocery delivery and ordering takeout became the norm. It was said that these were great ways to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 by limiting in-person contact, but what government officials didn’t say was that these practices generate more single-use plastic waste than their sustainable counterparts. We were also told to shy away from reusable bags, masks, gloves etc. because some reports falsely stated that the virus lasted longer on reusable materials and that disposable products were safer - since they could be immediately disposed of.

However, a report from a large group of health experts was released mid-pandemic, which discussed the safety of reusable items. The report stated that the Coronavirus remains active on plastic and stainless steel for up to 6 days, compared to 3 days on glass, up to 24 hours on cloth and actually could not be detected on paper after just 3 hours. Evidently, any material you use can transmit COVID, but single-use plastics are not innately safer than reusable materials and we should keep in mind the impact disposable items have on our planet once discarded. The report goes on to say: “Reuse and refill systems are an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy. They can create jobs and help build local economies. The COVID-19 global pandemic has triggered a discussion of how to ensure the safety of reusable systems in a public health crisis.

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​.​” So as long as you are frequently sanitizing your reusable bottles, washing your hands often, cleaning your cloth masks properly according to CDC guidelines, and practicing social distancing, you are equally as protected, if not more so, by using your sustainable products. It’s clear that the pandemic has made everything more difficult, including our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle but with a little effort and some knowhow we will make it through these trying times with our sustainable lifestyles still in tact.

That being said, here are a few tips and tricks for living sustainably during a pandemic.

Reusable masks and gloves

Let’s start with the obvious. At this point in the pandemic, reusable masks and gloves can be found at basically any retail or grocery store where you would expect to find disposable ones. Due to the fact that these are mostly made out of cloth, which doesn’t sustain the life of the virus for more than a few hours, you are less likely to be transmitting COVID-19 after using them. According to the CDC, for optimal protection against the virus, cloth masks should be washed daily or once they become wet and dirty and can be washed easily either by hand or in the washing machine.

Buy in bulk

This is another no-brainer. Grocery stores are COVID hotspots. Everyone needs to buy food, even during a pandemic, and not every grocery store offers delivery services. So if you want to avoid in-person contact as much as possible to lower your chances of being contaminated, while also lowering the amount of waste you produce, buying in bulk is an easy answer. Buying food in larger amounts will last longer and help you to minimize your number of grocery store visits.

Start a garden

Another way to avoid the crowds at grocery stores or the hustle and bustle of the farmers market is to jump on the trend of starting your own garden. Having your own stable source of food is so important and given the right tools, growing your own fruits and vegetables can be easy. The pandemic has lead to a huge surge in at-home gardening and one company said that they are currently selling six times more seeds than they were in a busy season pre-pandemic. While most people seem to be staying indoors these days, gardening gives people a reason to get outside and has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Conscious consumerism

With the pandemic came a significant rise in online shopping. Sure, ecommerce was popular pre-pandemic but when COVID hit and stay-at-home orders were issued, ecommerce was advanced by more that 2 years, adding an additional $105 billion to online revenue in the United States alone. It’s likely that this trend is here to stay, so becoming a conscious or ethical consumer is now more important than ever before. Ethical consumerism means shopping in ways that make a positive social, environmental or economic impact. You can make a difference and lower your impact on the environment by 1) only buying what you need when you need it, 2) consolidating orders, 3) thinking about the lifespan of each product you buy. Buy quality products that are well-built to last. 4) avoid ordering from places that use excess packaging and by 5) supporting small businesses. Doing so can help to support the local workforce and reduce your carbon footprint at the same time.

Eat Smart

Likewise, many restaurants have switched from primarily in-person dining to online ordering and takeout. With that, once again, comes the boom of single-use cutlery and plastic containers or dishes. This is not a new issue, but we can continue to fight this battle by bringing your own sustainable to-go cutlery kit with you when you are out and about and make sure to always pack a bento box or some Tupperware to avoid producing unnecessary waste. Of course you will need to make sure that you wash your reusable containers every time you take them out to ensure that they weren’t contaminated, but it’s worth the effort in the long run. If you’re too worried about contamination to take the risk of using a reusable container, a good option is to buy your own set of biodegradable take-out containers so that you can toss them in your compost pile or garden after using them. Last but not least, when ordering takeout, do your best to decline the extras. Let your server know that you don’t need straws, paper napkins or single-use utensils.

As we do our best to address the challenges of COVID-19 and the pandemic as a whole, there are some valuable lessons we have learned. We now know that when we come together as a community of people who value the importance of sustainability, that we do a great job of improvising and adapting to new scenarios and there’s no issue we’ve faced so far that we cannot overcome. We have learned that the wellbeing of our people and the health of the environment are closely linked and once the world overcomes the worst of the pandemic, a major part of rebuilding our economy will need to include embracing sustainable practices at their core.

Let’s join together and do our best to ensure a bright post-pandemic future for the generations to come.

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