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The pro­tective mea­sures people are taking to keep them­selves safe from COVID-19 may be harming the health of the envi­ronment.

The coro­n­avirus has worsened the problem of plastic pol­lution, according to the American Asso­ci­ation for the Advancement of Science. In the United States, the amount of trash has increased at the domestic level.

In June of 2020, the Solid Waste Asso­ci­ation of North America reported that on average American cities pro­duced 15 – 25% more waste since the coro­n­avirus out­break, with some cities as high as 35%.

A surge in online shopping during quar­antine has also led to an increase of household waste, as people often receive their orders in packages of recy­clable mate­rials. Pur­chases of plastic products have increased as well. 

Bon Appetit General Manager David Apthorpe said the dining hall has been using dis­posable dishes and utensils in obe­dience to the Michigan Health order requiring to-go options for diners.

“We love to be as sus­tainable as we can, but this crisis has taxed our ability to provide expe­dient service,” Apthorpe said.

Because the dis­posable dishes the stu­dents use are con­t­a­m­i­nated with food, Bon Appetit is unable to recycle any of these mate­rials. They are also required to min­imize high-touch areas, meaning fruits such as apples and pears must be washed and bagged before being set out.

According to the National Center for Biotech­nology Infor­mation, since the out­break of COVID-19, the pro­duction and use of plastic-based per­sonal pro­tective equipment — such as face masks and gloves — has increased worldwide.

“The increased use of plastic due to COVID-19 is nec­essary to help keep people safer,” pro­fessor of chem­istry Christopher Hamilton said. “Some plastics cannot be recycled, like the syringes used to deliver COVID vac­cines or the gloves used by healthcare workers.”  

Because the coro­n­avirus can exist a day on card­board, and up to three days on plastics and stainless steel, the sudden rise of haz­ardous waste has become a sig­nif­icant chal­lenge to local waste man­agement author­ities, the NCBI said.

Recy­cling is an effective way to prevent pol­lution and con­serve natural resources, but con­cerns about trans­mitting the virus have hin­dered recy­cling efforts. Nearly 46% of American cities had restric­tions on recy­cling pro­grams during the pan­demic to protect workers at recy­cling centers, the NCBI said.

With travel restric­tions to slow the spread of the disease, the demand for petroleum col­lapsed, causing oil prices to drop. This means man­u­fac­turing virgin plastics from fossil fuels is less expensive than recy­cling.

Some plastic waste ends up in the envi­ronment. I’m sure everyone has seen a dis­posable mask on the ground recently. These can end up in sewers and drainage systems, which can clog things up and cause problems,” Hamilton said. “They can end up in waterways and slowly breakdown, but some plastics break up into tiny pieces called microplastics.”

Microplastics present a threat to aquatic life, as fish and other animals consume the plastic. This can even­tually lead to small amounts of plastic in the food humans eat, Hamilton said.

“Trying to reduce the amount of waste you gen­erate is one way to help,” Hamilton said. “Instead of grabbing dis­posable forks and spoons when you get car­ryout, use the flatware you already have. Skip the straw if you don’t need one.”