These are troubling times, for businesses, families, individuals, and society. What about for the environment? While some look at the COVID-19 pandemic for all the bad it’s done, we’re choosing to look at it from a more positive planetary perspective.
For just a moment, we here at Sustainable Jungle invite you to metaphorically step outside your quarantines and self isolations to consider how coronavirus affects the circular economy, or one that would seek to eliminate waste at the source.
NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF COVID-19 ON THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
The coronavirus pandemic has massively disrupted the recycling industry. In the U.S. especially, municipal recycling services like curbside pickup are on the chopping block. While some, like Salt Lake City, are continuing curbside pickup as normal, many have been suspended or terminated. Recycling centers themselves have closed down or banned drop-offs over fear of transmission from item to sorters.
While options to recycle plastics decrease, usage increases.
For sanitation, the medical industry is consuming even more than usual, including polypropylene N-95 face masks, polyethylene Tyvek suits, and good old PET medical face shields.
Individuals, too, are producing more household waste. The sharing economy (and services like renting clothing and thrifting) has taken a dive due to the virus’ highly contagious nature and ability to survive on surfaces for multiple days. Most simply aren’t taking chances. Far easier and safer to just throw something away.
We’re also ordering more online, buying less food in bulk, stockpiling groceries (especially non-perishables that often include more packaging), and ordering more take-out food (seeing as that’s the only way to “eat out”). Even if one wanted to replace plastic and styrofoam takeout containers with reusable ones, they wouldn’t be allowed.
Even zero waste paragon Lauren Singer humbly admitted to “sacrif[ing her] values and [buying] items in plastic [not] recyclable in NYC recycling or maybe even anywhere” for the sake of personal safety.
Just because grocery stores are banning reusable bags and plastic lobbyists are using “public health” as a convenient excuse to overturn the plastic bag ban, that doesn’t mean COVID-19 has us “bagging sustainability” altogether.
POSITIVE EFFECTS OF COVID-19 ON THE CIRCULAR ECONOMY
Despite increased plastic use in the home, overall plastic use has undoubtedly fallen with the halt of certain industries. Think about all those plastic cups not being used by airlines alone.
Physical waste, however, is only a small part of the environmental footprint. Truly sustainable living takes into account the unseen impacts of human operations, where we’re also seeing decreases. Business closures may be an economic bane but the office energy and employee transportation emissions saved are an environmental boon.
Mobility in general has slowed dramatically. Over 25% of Americans have been mandated to “shelter in place”. Australia and Europe face even stricter measures against non-essential travel, issuing hefty fines for anyone caught outside without an acceptable reason. These travel bans, shelter-in-place orders, and boardrooms gone chatrooms have left skies and interstates hauntingly empty. In turn, the price of oil plummets and slows petroleum production.
Satellite imagery reveals dramatic decreases in nitrogen dioxide pollution over China and Italy and city dwellers have witnessed the smog veil lifting. Environmental resource economist Marshall Burke stated, “The two months of pollution reduction has probably saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. That’s significantly more than the current global death toll from the virus itself.” While the death toll now exceeds those numbers, the vast number of lives saved by air quality improvements shouldn’t be discounted.
If news that carbon emissions have fallen by over half isn’t enough to make you feel a little hopeful, we’re not sure what will.
However, our brief planetary respite isn’t cause to rest on our quarantined laurels. What better time to look at sustainability habits in your own home than when you’re stuck there?
While a truly circular economy eventually needs to replace the whole system, it begins at home.
HOW TO RECYCLE BETTER WHILE SHELTERING IN PLACE
This is a time to do what you can for the planet in the confines of prioritizing your own health. Remember: you don’t need to be perfect, you just need to be better. So what are some ways we can reduce our impact while staying home?
First, reduce the plastic you can. Continue to use your reusables; most grocery stores allow reusable bags so long as YOU do the bagging.
Ordering online has now become ubiquitous and with it comes more styrofoam packaging waste, making proper recycling even more critical. If you can, at least try and support your local economy (and reduce shipping emissions) by ordering from a nearby store.
For plastic you do use or that comes with online shopping, just ensure you’re disposing of it properly. That might mean storing it if you have space until municipal services continue. Recycling comes with great intentions that rarely live up to expectations and contamination causes the majority of “recycled items” to end up in landfills anyway.
While innovations like the plastic-sorting TrashBot can vastly ease our problems here, humans still need to help. Like washing away food waste and preventing it from contaminating the batch. Get in the habit of washing your takeout containers and food packagings, like tin cans, glass jars, and plastic containers (as well as learn what number plastics are recyclable in your area).
Will these changes last post-pandemic? Will emissions spike back up once people are allowed to travel and the economy recovers?
Probably. But the extent will depend on us re-examining our definition of “need” and continuing the conserative, non-consumer habits we’ve developed. The pandemic shows we CAN get by with less, even something as “essential” as toilet paper (seriously, zero waste toilet paper isn’t an oxymoron!). It also depends on us voting with our dollar to demand change at the institutional level.
Big picture, COVID-19 represents an opportunity to make climate-positive choices and move toward a more circular economy. For companies, this means implementing teleworking wherever possible and making energy-saving investments. According to the International Institute for Sustainable Development, “Periods of high unemployment and low interest rates are the right time for new low-carbon investments and infrastructure, including the kind required to support the transition to clean energy.”
We’ve witnessed monumental-scale impact in a miniscule period of time. This pandemic is nothing if not proof that climate-positive change can happen and it can happen quickly. Despite all the year’s uncertainty, that’s pretty clearly inspiring.
For more stores on sustainability and recycling, please visit our friends over at Sustainable Jungle.