Waste Increases Due to the COVID-19 Crisis

With World Environment Day coming up on 5 June, Susanna Jackson, an environmental data analyst at Comply Direct has taken a look how waste has increased during the COVID-19 crisis....

Trying to be sustainable is challenging at the best of times, but the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted efforts with many new obstacles. Consumers have found themselves stocking up on items that they thought might be necessary if they found themselves confined to their homes for long periods of time, much of it packaged in plastics and cardboard. Stocking up has not only led to an increase in packaging waste but also food waste, where there are issues over ensuring that it is collected and treated via anaerobic digestion rather than going to landfills or incinerators, where it would emit harmful greenhouse gases instead of being recycled into green gas and biofertilisers.

As concern over health and hygiene are prioritised during the pandemic, demand for products such as disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, and masks are at a record high, with much of it thrown out at unprecedented volumes as the issue of disposable plastics is placed on the back burner.

Home delivery services are delivering items in plastic bags, restaurants can now only offer home delivery and takeaway options increasing the use of takeaway containers, not allowing customers to bring their own containers, and many coffee shops have banned reusable mugs. The pandemic may have potentially damaged confidence in more sustainable methods such as refillables over the longer term.

In addition, unprecedented volumes of medical waste are being generated; hospitals have been advised to double bag any clinical waste from COVID-19 patients, a necessary measure but further adding to the plastic waste problem. Reports have shown that PPE is ending up in recycling streams, with much of it difficult to and currently not recyclable due to contamination and biohazardous regulations.

Home clear outs are increasing in popularity now people have the time to do it, however as charity shops are closed many items that may have had a second life are ending up in landfill. An increase in fly-tipping issues has also been observed due to impatience from households as garden waste and bulky waste collections have been the hardest hit. Meanwhile, book and toy libraries are closed so people are buying items they may otherwise have borrowed.

On the other hand, the pandemic may also have brought about some positive changes, such as consumers restricting themselves from nipping out to buy things they don’t necessarily need, and instead looking to what they already have to be repurposed. Consumers can help by continuing to reuse what they have and trying to store items rather than throw out items for donation and recycling. Some recycling facilities are still operating with more due to open soon. Some takeaway food outlets will be more than happy to discuss options for using own containers, and there is always the option to refuse disposable cutlery or napkins with deliveries and look for grocery suppliers offering more sustainable delivery packaging such as cardboard boxes or biodegradable bags. Plastic takeaway containers can also serve as a great substitute for Tupperware through reuse to store other items in.

A guide for cafes and restaurants on how to avoid single use plastics and what compostable packaging alternatives are available during COVID-19 has been launched by the Plastic Free Places program (https://www.plasticfreeplaces.org/). Many are pushing for a green response to the COVID-19 recovery through a Green New Deal with climate and health at the heart of decisions and policies.