Every week after coming home from grocery shopping, I throw away my mask, gloves, wash my hands twice, wipe down everything from outside and place the food on the dining table. However, such efforts to remain safe and sanitized come at a cost — the new sanitary habits we are developing in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic are unexpectedly wasteful, adding an additional burden to the environment.
Since March 2020, global plastic consumption has increased drastically. At one point last year, the United States was thought to be generating a year’s worth of medical waste in just six months. Much of this waste is caused by both the production process of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, and other single-use products and the waste pollution after use.
To promote an eco-friendly lifestyle during the pandemic, there are several daily practices we must adopt to combat and reduce the ever-increasing carbon footprint of COVID-19 while staying protected from the virus.
Environmental concerns have been raised with the usage of PPE. Single-use disposable masks — masks made of polypropylene plastic — are a popular PPE option when going outside. Although they are known to be an effective and accessible option, as they cost less to manufacture, the environmental cost is huge. According to a U.K. study published in Environmental Science and Technology journal, nearly 129 billion masks and 65 billion gloves are being used every month globally as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. These single-use masks are made of polypropylene, polyethylene and vinyl, all of which are various types of plastic that take hundreds of years to degrade. Since they are considered to be biohazardous waste and have to be dealt with special care, including burning, these masks aren’t considered recyclable. Worse, the combustion of waste emits tons of carbon dioxide, causing an increase in air pollution thus aggravating the climate crisis. Continuing along this dangerous trajectory will inevitably harm wildlife, marine life and others in crucial ecosystems.
Replacing a single-use mask with a reusable cloth mask is a necessary solution in terms of reducing environmental damage. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests only reserving the surgical or single-use ones for medical workers. A peer-reviewed study at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine published in April also shows that the best homemade masks actually achieved 79% filtration while surgical masks ranged between 62% to 65%.
Because of the increase in sanitation demand from the COVID-19 pandemic, water usage in the United States has also increased. A research study from TechRepublic shows that the average U.S. home used approximately 729 additional gallons of water in April 2020 than it did in February 2020.
In California, many people are ordering either takeout or delivery, in line with the public health policy of limiting dine-in options for restaurants. A recent study shows that while take-out boxes, plastic bags and utensils can be convenient and sanitized, they are simultaneously bad for the environment. The microplastics which make up the containers our meals arrive in can take a shocking 450 years to degrade. Supporting businesses that use compostable boxes is a good option to consider because the materials these boxes are made of — usually corn, bamboo or sugarcane — are all biodegradable.
Our shopping habits also changed due to the pandemic. Now, we are less incentivized to go to the grocery stores so as to reduce human interaction and the spread of COVID-19. Traditionally, waste from overstocked food beyond our consumption was a major issue; however, after COVID-19, our food waste was drastically increased despite food shortages in stores. Reducing food waste is crucial to stay eco-friendly during the pandemic, so conscious consumption is essential to mitigating the damages caused by food waste.
COVID-19 has increasingly burdened the environment, and we must prioritize our commitments to combating climate change even under these pressing circumstances. So far, with all the government policies incentivizing the reduction of high carbon footprint plastic products, we were able to slightly alleviate the burden. But we need to do better, especially when not only our health but our planet’s health is at stake.
Eileen Zhang is an Environmental Health Sciences student at UC Berkeley