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.”