Sustainability During COVID-19

In the chaos of what has been 2020 thus far, many aspects of day to day life look and feel significantly different. There are the obvious ‘new normal’ customs such as social distancing, wearing masks, and the never-ending Zoom meetings; however, as a first-year student on campus, there is also an unsettling feeling that comes with finishing meals from the Harvard University Dining Services. The post-meal sigh of satisfaction and fullness has also become a sigh for the environment.

Harvard’s current dining system looks much different than it would in any normal year. Students stand six feet apart in lines, select food from the new COVID-19 reduced menu, and take their bag of food to eat elsewhere. Although many of these precautions are necessary for the safety of the community, finishing a meal and ending up with more plastic waste than there was food feels wrong. 

With so many students eating from HUDS and throwing away entire bags of plastic waste after each meal, Harvard’s sustainability practices are in the forefront of many students’ minds. Ironically, this past summer, first year students at Harvard were assigned to choose one of several books on climate change to read and discuss with their entryway groups. Although this environmental waste initially appears to be a Harvard issue, the emergence of COVID-19 has also motivated a movement toward single-use plastic containers, water bottles and utensils — a worldwide phenomenon and a potential dangerous paradigm shift.

Starbucks was one of the companies that was quick to jump on this shift toward single-use containers. In the last week of my job as a barista in early March, right when COVID-19 began to infect communities in Washington, we were no longer able to accept reusable cups. 

Many customers were frustrated that their efforts of sustainability were suddenly being denied rather than encouraged. As seen in the rising popularity of reusable items such as cups, straws, and grocery bags, we as a society over the past decade have become more conscious of the amount of waste we produce in our daily lives. In 2010 alone, 8 million metric tons of plastic entered the ocean. In response, over the past 10 years, many states have passed single use plastic bag bans and enforced fees in an attempt to reduce plastic waste. 

In our current situation, although there are no peer-reviewed studies showing that using disposable plastic bags are more effective than reusable bags in preventing the spread of COVID-19, many states have reversed their bag bans. COVID-19 currently poses a top threat to society, but seems like the issue of our sustainability has largely been swept under the rug. 

The dip in oil prices earlier this year (which has greatly reduced the cost of plastic) along with the CDC’s recommendation that bars and restaurants start to use disposable items when serving has led to a massive spike in the amount of plastic being consumed daily. However, the increase in our consumption of plastic does not just come from the service industry. With more people staying at home, there has been a massive rise in online shopping, which consequently comes with large amounts of plastic packaging waste. Many people have also switched to buying pre-packaged meat and veggies from grocery stores rather than loose items, even though the World Health Organization has stated that transmission through food is very unlikely. Loose food items — such as cuts of meat, fish, cheese and fresh vegetables — have lost up to 50% of sales while plastic packaged goods have gained up to 50% more. To top it all off, more than 34% of recycling facilities nationwide have partially or totally closed and many have had to cut staff. 

Due to a variety of factors, our plastic usage has increased between 250% to 350% this year alone. A major source, although necessary, is the use of masks and essential medical personal protective equipment. PPE waste, especially the elastics on disposable masks, poses a significant threat to ocean life. Plastic does not decompose and often turns into microplastics that are ingested by fish and other sea animals, and the elastics on masks easily catch onto the feet of birds as well. Our means of disposal of PPE is also up for debate. In countries such as Portugal, the Environmental Agency recommended that PPE should not be recycled, but rather incinerated or put into a landfill. Although these policies for disposal are for the purpose of eliminating potential biohazard contamination, the environmental costs of dumping used masks into a landfill comes at too large of a cost only to serve as a measure taken to avoid theoretical contamination. 

As seen in new policies and procedures globally, our surge in plastic consumption is creating unnecessary pollution. Some argue this may be balanced by cuts in air pollution and carbon emissions that resulted from the shutdown of cities, states, and countries in the spring. However, the shutdowns only slightly cut air pollution, and research shows it is back on the rise. Currently, 2020 has seen a 4% reduction in carbon emissions from the year prior, but this would need to fall to about a 7.6% reduction annually in order to effectively counter the effects of global warming. In addition, the declining emissions are temporary — since the peak cut of emissions in March, carbon levels are back on the rise. 

The impact that this pandemic has had on society is detrimental. We are suffering from incredible economic losses, families are struggling to make ends meet, we have lost loved ones, and we have had to adapt to life under the constraints of COVID-19. Many sacrifices are being made, but does that mean we should be sacrificing our responsibility to reduce our waste and sustainability practices? The necessary addition of masks and PPE into our everyday lives naturally creates more waste, but we should be actively working to find ways to reduce our plastic consumption in other ways.

The progress we have made toward sustainability is in jeopardy as our habits change due to the impacts of COVID-19. It is essential that we do not let this disaster that has already had such negative impacts on our communities also impact our natural world. Being faced with one issue does not mean that we should set other issues aside or be less active in our commitment to reduce our environmental impact. When companies use disposable single-use plastics, they not only create more waste but also send a message to their customers that this is what they should be doing as well to keep themselves safe. 

Companies and state governments should not take actions that would roll back environmentally progressive practices unless there is tangible evidence that doing so significantly increases consumer safety. However, plastic pollution is an issue perpetuated by both producers and consumers, so individuals need to understand that increasing their plastic consumption is not an adequate response to the pandemic and could contribute to the already growing list of long term effects. Some actions individuals can take include cutting the elastics on disposable masks before throwing them out, paying closer attention to the packaging and plastics when ordering online and grocery shopping, and choosing to buy from companies making a conscious effort to avoid using large amounts of plastic in their packaging.

It is upsetting to walk past the trash cans here at Harvard and see bags piled on top of each other with plastic containers and water bottles inside of them. It was difficult to refuse customers’ reusable cups at Starbucks back in March and give the same person up to four or five plastic cups on the same day. There are some precautions that are in fact necessary, but it is important we find a balance between what is helpful and what is harmful.

Image by Christopher Vega is licensed under the Unsplash License.

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