These are truly trying times. In the midst of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic recession, sustainability faces a big challenge: single-use plastics seem to be making a comeback. With fears of contamination and the transmission of a novel coronavirus, the demand for disposable gloves, masks, and cleaning agents is surging. In this blog post, guest writer and community member, Gauri Sindhu, explores the extent of the problem and how we can still avoid single-use plastics at an individual level.
The Sustainability Crisis
For those of us trying to reduce our waste, we now see our cupboards piling with sanitizers, wipes, takeaway food containers — all plastic. While this recent surge is understandable as concerns about health and safety loom large, it is concerning from an environmental perspective.
Pre-COVID, most restaurants, and cafes used ceramic and steel cutlery. Now we are seeing a rise in plastic takeaway containers as more people opt to eat at home.
The Polystyrene Pickle
According to a Bloomberg article, published on May 1, 2020, Germany’s Ineos Styrolution and U.S.-based Trinseo SA are both seeing a double-digit percentage increase in sales in the food packaging and health-care industries.
Styrolution is the world’s largest producer of polystyrene (aka Styrofoam). Polystyrene is one of the most common forms of plastic — over 15 million tons is produced globally every year. Unfortunately, most formulations of polystyrene are not recyclable.
It can be made into a hard plastic (used in toys, car parts, takeaway food containers) or can be combined with air to make foam-like solids. From coffee cups to egg cartons, it’s all polystyrene. In medicine, it is often used to make the Petri dishes, test tubes, and test-kit packaging needed to diagnose cases of COVID-19.
Like most plastics, polystyrene is a petroleum derivative and with the dip in global oil prices, it has become even cheaper to produce. What makes all this even more interesting is that polystyrene usage had been declining for over a decade.
Countries had begun banning products made from polystyrene and the industry was facing a serious decline. The pandemic changed that.
Is it Really That Bad?
What does this renewed love for plastics mean for the future of sustainability? Well, truth be told, one can’t say for sure. It is quite likely that, once the pandemic subsides or is under some control, plastics may soon be forgotten. The problem is that adopting a sustainable lifestyle involves changing many habits. Returning to plastics isn’t ideal — especially for those starting out their sustainability journey.
But this isn’t about picking which crisis is more important. It is important to protect our frontline workers. In which case should it really matter whether we’re using plastic to protect human lives? No. But we mustn’t lose sight of the bigger picture. Especially what comes in the next normal post-COVID-19.
Here’s What You Can Do
As we adjust to the next normal, there is still a lot that we can do to ensure that we produce less waste.
Say no to disposable masks and yes to reusable ones. Cloth masks are a much better alternative to disposable masks and you can wash them and reuse them. While N95 and surgical masks are reserved for frontline workers, fabric masks are an alternative to be used by the general public. Wearing a mask reduces your risk of being infected with the virus when you’re out in public. If you’re asymptomatic and are unaware of this, wearing a mask also prevents you from spreading it to others.*
You can even make fabric masks at home! The ideal type of fabric would be something that is thick such as quilting fabric. If you want to check for the effectiveness of your fabric mask, hold it up against bright light or sunlight. The more the fabric blocks the light, the better it will be at filtration. If you’re using thinner fabrics, it is better that you layer them — add at least two layers.
There are a few things that you should keep in mind with masks:
- Wash your hands before putting your mask on.
- Be sure to properly cover your nose and mouth completely with the mask.
- When removing the mask, remove it from your ears first and avoid touching the mask from any other place.
- Wash the mask in hot water with detergent.
Here’s a video from the World Health Organisation on how you can wear a fabric mask safely.
Ditch plastic when you can and be a smart shopper. A disposable bag is not better than a reusable bag, even during the pandemic. You can wash and disinfect a reusable bag. You wouldn’t have to worry about properly disposing a plastic bag that could be a potential contaminant. Instead of opting for a disposable cup at your local Starbucks, carry a reusable one. The same goes for straws. Stay away from plastic water bottles too and opt for a stainless steel bottle instead.
Using your own containers is not just environmentally friendly but also safer as you have control over ensuring it’s washed, clean, and safe!
We’re all stuck in the confines of our houses with little else to do besides browsing e-commerce websites all-day long. The urge to splurge is intense because we all need a little pick-me-up but don’t go overboard! Most e-commerce websites use a lot of wasteful packaging and we really don’t need that trash. Instead of ordering one or two items at a time, make a conscious list of the things you need. Ask yourself — do you really need it?
Embrace home-cooked food. While the pandemic has brought in a wave of anxiety and uncertainty, it has also brought us the opportunity to spend time with family and nothing beats bonding over cooking.
Avoid takeaways and embrace the goodness of home-cooked meals. For wrapping leftovers, opt for reusable beeswax wraps or Tupperware containers as opposed to plastic wrappings.
Make fresh juices, condiments, energy bars, and yogurts at home instead of buying readymade ones in plastic containers. For easy recipes, refer to websites such as Cooking with Manali, Delish, and Tastemade among others. YouTube also has a plethora of quick and easy recipes that you can refer to. Several home cooks and chefs are offering up their delicious recipes on Instagram as well. Checkout Radhika Khandelwal (also a zero-waste champion), Anahita Dhondy, Krishi Cress, and many others. Cooking doesn’t have to be a tedious and dull job!
If you do feel like eating takeaway food, carry your own containers. Talk to your local restaurants and cafes about this.
Support businesses that are going the extra mile. You can also reach out to your local cafes and restaurants and ask them about non-plastic alternatives. The same goes for brands you enjoy shopping from. Reach out to them via social media or email and ask them about what they’re doing to reduce their dependence on single-use plastics.
If you have to order takeout, do so from cafes and restaurants taking the initiative to reduce their plastic consumption. Here are links to a few eco-friendly restaurants in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai to name a few. Zomato, for one, encourages customers to not opt for plastic cutlery. Swiggy also has a Swiggy Packaging Assist program that provides options for ordering from eco-friendly eateries. Small businesses have been terribly hurt by the pandemic so let’s support the ones making an effort to do good even in these times.
In these difficult times, we are caught somewhere between being indulgent and being cautious. Let’s be both, but not forget the bigger picture: we are still at war with single-use plastics, and we still have a long way to go and every individual has a contribution to make.
*Please note, even when you’re wearing a mask, it is imperative to take adequate precautions such as washing hands regularly and practicing social distancing.
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This article has been written by Gauri Sindhu, Founder of The Hornbill Co., a women-led boutique Communications & Digital Marketing agency committed to helping small businesses grow and create an impact.