An opinion piece written by OSIMAP Intern – Mikhala Bornstein, undergraduate student at The University of Rhode Island (2020).

Recent plastic grocery bags from a local store

News outlets are reporting people littering masks, gloves, and other now essential items, as a result of COVID-19. You can no longer fill a reusable cup at a coffee shop, or bring your own bags to the grocery store. There is no dining in and takeout is now in ever high demand. Taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19 are absolutely required, and human health must be of the highest priority for the whole of society. However, as a result of the global pandemic, we are certainly taking pause or even reversing recent societal actions that reduced usage and increased recycling of plastics.

Decline of re-use

In my home state of New Hampshire, I recently learned that reusable bags have been temporarily banned. San Francisco, Massachusetts, and others soon followed banning reusable bags. As of yet, there is no evidence of COVID-19 being spread from using reusable bags, but some sources suggest that such bags can harbor bacteria, contagions, and viruses. Since COVID-19 can survive on plastic for up to three days, caution should also be used when handling single use plastic bags. The plastics industry is using the pandemic to advocate for reusable bag bans. A personal concern of mine is if this will be temporary or will banning reusable products persist long after COVID-19 has been controlled. Will non-single use plastics forever be seen as unsanitary?

Coffee shops including Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks are no longer allowing reusable cups. Restaurants that typically had sit down areas where dishes would be washed are now swapping for take out containers. It is increasingly difficult to find places to buy in bulk and bring your own container, when small eco-friendly stores are closing. There’s no doubt that plastic use is on the rise during COVID-19. My only hope is that sustainable options make a comeback when this is all said and done. 

The rise of online shopping

Packing plastic bubbles

Online shopping has increased during the pandemic. Amazon is delivering essentials, masks being ordered online, and stores closed. I personally have ordered a few things and they come in huge packages with plastic bubbles and bubble wrap. While a lot of the packaging is recyclable, such as those pictured to the right, I assume not everyone is recycling all of it and regardless, it is plastic waste you wouldn’t otherwise have if you went to the store. I found some helpful tips on where/how to recycle my delivery packaging. Online ordering likely is ramping up plastic production as well to keep up with the demand of bubble wrap, plastic envelopes, etc. It has been found that although regular garbage waste has dropped during the pandemic, plastic waste, recyclable and not, is on the rise

Personal protective equipment is now littering streets and parking lots. Single use gloves are ending up all over the place when people could simply place them in a trash can. With the beaches so close by I can’t help but think how many of these gloves and masks will end up in the ocean from people tossing them out of their cars, them blowing away in the wind.