It’s hard to measure how the pandemic has affected the environment in real time, but a pressing issue for environmental groups is the potential waste being produced by more people using single-use items, such as disinfecting wipes and paper towels. In addition to bleach and alcohol, soap and water works on surfaces, said Ellie Murray, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health; for a reusable option, launder towels and rags used for cleaning in warm water with soap. Cloth face coverings should be laundered regularly, too.
Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council who focuses on food waste initiatives, said the challenges of balancing safety and sustainability will continue as more businesses reopen. “The business sector has produced much less waste, but we need to make sure we don’t lose momentum,” she said, noting that most waste is created by businesses, not consumers. She supports measures recommended by public health experts, and she said overall that the lifestyle changes prompted by stay-at-home orders, such as cooking at home, have brought about positive changes in how people are consuming and acquiring goods. “People are cooking from scratch and contributing to their overall health and producing less waste,” she said. Composting, cooking at home and buying ingredients in bulk are all sustainable practices that she recommends.
John Mills, an associate hospital epidemiologist at the University of Michigan’s academic medical center who has been treating coronavirus patients, is frustrated by some of the waste he has seen, such as increased use of plastic utensils (he says proper hand-washing will do more to prevent virus spread than using disposables), but he supports and encourages measures that minimize touch points between people and that protect workers. He said measures such as banning reusable bags in stores are good for now, because they provide extra protection for workers who bag groceries. He likes his local grocery’s policy of having customers bag their own groceries, which allows them to use reusable totes instead of plastic bags. “That way, the store employee doesn’t need to worry that you’ve done the cleaning,” he said.
On a larger scale, though, Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle, a private recycling business that specializes in hard-to-recycle products, worries about a global drop in recycling. Falling oil prices and restrictions on what materials can be recycled, he said, could affect recycling companies’ bottom line. (Many companies have limited what they accept to protect workers in the short term, which Szaky supports.) “It’s not going to make recycling go away, but it’s going to make it way less capable.” Companies that have made commitments to pivot to recycled packing will have a tougher time meeting those goals with these conditions, he said.
Recycling personal protective equipment, such as the disposable masks and gloves that have ended up on streets and in landfills, is another challenge going forward, Szaky and Hoover said. “We need to figure out how to recycle them in a way that keeps people safe,” Hoover said.
Despite these obstacles, Szaky has seen sustained interest from both companies and individuals in keeping commitments to the environment. “As we come out of this, I think people are going to be looking to bring their own personal solution, and maybe some of the behaviors they got out of covid,” such as gardening or cooking at home, he said. He encourages consumers to look for products that can be recycled locally or that have some form of take-back program, and to look for products that can be reused.
Lauren Singer, author of the blog Trash is for Tossers and founder of Package Free, a company that sells sustainably made home and body products, is known for living a “zero-waste lifestyle.” Despite growing a following by forgoing packaged goods as much as possible, Singer said falling ill before New York enacted its stay-at-home order (and living in the city during Hurricane Sandy) informed her decision to stock up on products she normally wouldn’t, such as canned goods and freezable items, to minimize trips to the store. She encourages consumers to do what they can to reduce waste but to put their safety first. “First and foremost, your basic needs have to be met,” she said. She still keeps up with other habits, such as using reusable glass containers, composting food scraps and making her own toothpaste and deodorant using baking soda.
Both Murray and Lona Mody, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, say good public health practice and policy go hand in hand with environmentalism. The pandemic and the conditions that may have exacerbated it, Murray said, are a chance to reimagine infrastructure and systems that create conditions for viruses to thrive, such as crowded public transportation. Disease changes habits, and some cities have already adopted measures, such as cutting streets off to cars to allow more space for walking, biking or eating outdoors, that are also environmentally beneficial. “It’s a good time for us to be conscious. Doing the right thing for public health is usually the right thing for the earth,” Mody said.
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