As the country reopens after months of blocking, consumers and restaurants are becoming increasingly dependent on disposable plastic bags, containers and utensils due to health problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the outbreak, cities and states have made some progress in banning plastic bagsmoving from disposable plastic — which will end up in the ocean — to paper or reusable products.
But now cities and states have delayed or lifted these plastic bag bans, fearing that reusable products will spread the disease. Many retailers prohibit customers from bringing reusable bags. And municipalities are cutting back on processing operations due to health problems.
The growth of disposable plastic is a major blow to the fight against plastic pollution, which is projected to increase by 40% in the next decade. according to a World Wildlife Fund report.
The problem is particularly evident in the restaurant industry and its growing reliance on food delivery services. Many restaurants, even those that fought plastic waste before the pandemic, do not limit the amount of plastic involved in take-out orders.
For example, the popular Just Salad chain produced reusable bowls that saved over 75,000 pounds of plastic per year. When the pandemic broke out, the company immediately stopped the program, closed the restaurants and launched delivery and pick-up – both of which meant using only one-time packaging.
“The environmental impact is definitely real,” said Sandra Noonan, director of sustainable development at Just Salad.
Sushi Taro Sushi Restaurant staff assist with order processing on May 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger | Getty images
The shift in the salad chain is similar to the transition in many popular restaurants when the pandemic began, including Starbucks and Dunkin ‘, which stopped letting customers use reusable mugs.
Green Restaurant Association CEO Michael Oshman said it was too early to predict how much more waste was generated by the pandemic.
But most local economies do not have infrastructure for reusable or compostable take-away packaging. And environmentalists are warning that the pandemic is threatening to scare consumers away from reusable products, as well as progress.
“The plastics industry has taken advantage of this pandemic to try to convince people that disposable plastic is essential for our safety and reusable is dirty and dangerous,” said John Hotsevar, director of the Greenpeace Ocean Campaign. “The fact that none of these things is supported by the best available science does not matter.”
“Exploitation of the Covid-19 fears ultimately made people less secure, diverting attention from the need to focus on the risk of airborne transmission and critical measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distance,” he added.
The main problem will be the restoration of zero-waste policy when the pandemic eventually subsides, although delivery services have the opportunity to make themselves known as zero-waste options and develop returnable or reusable systems.
But one solution can be relatively easy for restaurants: ask customers to choose whether they want plastic utensils with delivery or delivery orders, which usually include a lot of disposable plastic items.
Just Salad introduced changes to its own platform for online orders at the beginning of the block and said that it saved them money and reduced the use of dishes in these orders by 88%. The Sustainable Networking Officer is negotiating with third-party delivery services to make the shift universal.
A masked client receives takeaway food from a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic on May 20, 2020 in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California.
Michael Tullberg | Getty images
While Oshman encourages restaurants to look for better solutions than disposable plastics – for example, using disposable packaging made with more waste after consumption – he also said operators could look for changes elsewhere to lower the environmental costs of the business.
“There are many things that are still under your control. For example, what cleaning products do you use to disinfect everything? ” he said.
Oshman also suggested creating a QR code so that customers can read menus on their smartphones, rather than disposable menus. And restaurateurs can recycle disposable masks and gloves spilled by their employees through Terracycle, a New Jersey recycler who collects non-recyclable waste and turns it into raw material for manufacturers.
“The delays and failures in moving away from disposable plastics are unsuccessful and counterproductive, but they will be very short,” said Hochevar.
“As our understanding of the effects of plastics on the health of our planet and our communities continues to grow, it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to quickly abandon disposable plastics,” he added.