By Margaret Hartley
Midway through this pandemic period, my postal carrier started coming by twice a day. A rural contractor, he uses his own car as he drives around town. And with everyone shopping from home, he couldn’t fit all the packages in his car on a single pass through.
It was just a few times a week, and only lasted about a couple of months, but it was a stark reminder of how this pandemic has changed our daily habits.
Work-from-home has been good for the planet in some ways — fewer cars on the roads, less food waste as people cook more and shop less. But apparently the amount of garbage we have been throwing out has grown substantially.
Some of that must be from all the packaging from all those boxes our mail carriers — and the UPS and FedEx folk — are delivering. Some of it might be more takeout containers. And some might just be a shift — more time at home means less on-the-go garbage. That is, our work garbage is now our home garbage.
Another problem is that during the pandemic, people are using more disposables, including those associated with health such as disposable masks and gloves, and disinfecting wipes and paper towels. Others are more associated with convenience, like disposable plates and cups, single-use containers, shopping bags and food wrappers.
We all have to keep ourselves safe in this pandemic and do whatever we can to keep others safe, too. No one is going to argue with the need for PPE for our front-line workers. The World Health Organization suggested that worldwide, the pandemic has created the need for 90 million medical masks every month, and nearly as many pairs of gloves.
But it’s not medical waste driving the increase. It’s household garbage, and it’s up as much as 40 percent in some places in the United States, according to the National Waste and Recycling Association, a trade association representing private garbage companies. The Solid Waste Association of North America says overall the increase spiked to about 25 percent in the spring and has been somewhat lower since then.
It’s on us to look at what we are doing that increases our own waste. Excessive packaging from ordering more goods for home delivery? A lot of the packaging can be reused and the boxes you don’t have a second use for should be broken down and recycled. And plan your orders to group items whenever possible to limit both packaging and delivery miles.
Eating and cooking more at home? Good time to buy in bulk or opt for larger packages. Most people are shopping far less often, doing one bigger trip every two or three weeks instead of dropping in at the market a few times a week for just a few items. That means being more deliberate about what we buy and when, which is good for finding ways to be more efficient in our purchases. More planning means less waste.
Shopping bags? Back in the spring, before we learned this virus is more of an airborne than a surface problem, some stores stopped allowing reusable bags. The state’s March 1 plastic bag ban was put on hold while a lawsuit by plastics manufacturers worked its way through the courts.
But the case was resolved and the bag ban went into effect last week. And the ban on reusable bags didn’t last too long in stores anyway. I let cashiers know I have my own bags and will bag my own groceries, but at this point most tell me a bagger will be happy to pack for me. If you’ve collected a pile of plastic bags during the bag-ban hiatus, you can reuse them while shopping or return them to recycle bins at the entrance of supermarkets.
It looks like this virus isn’t going away anytime soon, so it’s important for us to figure out how to get through it without trashing everything. Because when it is all over, we’re still going to have to live on this planet.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on Nov. 8. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.