In a matter of days, our normal lives were turned upside down by the novel coronavirus and the COVID-19 global pandemic. Changes to routines and habits changed quickly and guidance on how to avoid the virus changed frequently. Speculations for distance learning and statewide shutdowns became a reality.
Today most communities have settled into a new normal. Some businesses have reopened while others have closed for good. Some have returned to work in offices while others continue to work and do school from home. The impact of COVID-19 on businesses, schools, communities and the economy are still being discussed and analyzed as much as the virus itself.
But what less-obvious impacts has this strange new normal had on our lives, communities and environment?
Increased Waste, Or Is It?
For the past decade we have become more aware of the environmental impact of everyday choices and items. Reusable shopping bags and straws have grown in popularity while plastic bottles, utensils, coffee cups and other single use items have become a talking point for environmentalists around the world. Grassroots startups like Plastic Free July have become global movements. From Starbucks to SeaWorld, companies and organizations have been adopting practices to reduce waste and cut down on single use plastics.
Almost overnight everything changed. Reusable cups, bags and containers are no longer accepted at many locations. As curbside pickup and contactless delivery have become the new normal, the use of single use containers for takeout, groceries and everything else imaginable has skyrocketed faster than the SpaceX Dragon. Add on top of this disposable face masks, nitrile and latex gloves, and bottles upon empty bottles of hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes.
Dr. Christian Dunn, a microplastics expert and head of The Plastic Research Centre of Wales at Bangor University, has said the damage caused but the increased use of single-use plastics “would last forever.”
While the effectiveness of using single-use plastics as a means to help curb the spread of the virus is still being debated, the norms around plastic use have regressed dramatically. Concerns have been growing that COVID-19 is causing a secondary pandemic – a plastic pandemic. So are we facing a crisis of waste?
COVID-19 and the Waste Industry
With much of the population working and schooling from home, household waste is on the rise. Some estimates show household curbside waste collection has roughly doubled in volume, suggesting environmentalists’ concerns may be justified. But equally important to household waste is the quantity of waste collected from commercial and industrial facilities.
Single-use plastic waste is increasing in some areas of our lives, but the total volume of waste may actually be on the decline. Industrial waste from production facilities and construction sites is down as work has been paused or slowed to allow for social distancing.
Yes, household waste production is up, but with so many stores, restaurants and other retail locations closed or operating at a fraction of their old capacity, waste collection from businesses is down. Some industry experts report the demand for their waste collection services from businesses and industrial complexes has been cut in half since the start of the pandemic.
How Does It All Add Up?
The increase in single-use plastic is likely to stay for the foreseeable future, but we don’t need to be worried about being buried in our own waste just yet. Thankfully we have professionals in the waste industry working hard all across the country to keep waste and recycling trucks running no matter what crisis 2020 may throw at us. We also have facilities to process many of the plastics we are consuming in higher volume than we have in years.
But at JDA Company we believe we can do better. We can do better to reduce waste and protect our environment. Now, more than ever is the time for innovation and creative solutions to complex problems. Read our second article in this two-part series to learn the creative solutions we suggest.
Appreciating Our Waste and Recycling Workers
Despite all the health concerns presented by the pandemic, waste and recycling workers are still working in communities across the country and around the world to keep our neighborhoods clean and safe. Help thank your local workers by bringing Waste & Recycling Workers Week to your city and state. Submit a proclamation request to your local leadership today and explore more ways to celebrate your neighborhood sanitation workers.
If You Can’t Reduce, Recycle!
While the goal should be to reduce waste as much as possible, sometimes there is no way to avoid single use materials. When that is the case, your best option is to choose products made with recyclable materials. Visit RecycleGuide.org to learn more about what materials can be recycled and how you can reduce your waste production.