HOW COVID CONTINUES TO AFFECT WASTE AROUND THE WORLD
June 21, 2020
The recent Covid-19 Pandemic has changed a lot about how we live. It has affected human behaviour directly, changing how we interact with each other, what we buy, how we shop, and what we end up discarding as a result of our purchases. Human behaviour is linked to waste patterns and since the start of the pandemic, places around the globe have witnessed a shift in where waste is coming from, how it is discarded, and changes to sustainability efforts through those striving towards zero waste endeavours.
Each decision made by society has an affect on the world at large, both negative and positive. Problems have risen at waste and recycling facilities, a shift towards homebound working and food preparation has taken place, an increase of medical and personal protective equipment has been used, and zero waste living styles have been altered. All of these changes to waste have a direct correlation with a change in our human behaviour caused by Covid, and here’s how our choices have impacted the world.
Waste and Recycling
Waste and recycling facilities deal with problems of wrongly disposing of items on a regular basis, but with Covid forcing families to be homebound, residential waste has been increasing. A city in the Netherlands saw an increase of 42.5% in waste since March 2020. The Ontario Waste Management Association (OWMA) has also seen results in increased waste after surveying March – April waste collections from the participating 12 municipalities throughout Ontario. In general, all three waste streams (garbage, recycling, and compost collections) saw a volume increase compared to previous years. The 5% garbage increase for one month is equal to more than 600 full garbage truck loads.
Increases in waste amounts can be a result of many different factors, such as population shifts and growth, however, in this case with more of the population working from home, the residential waste increase could actually be more of a diversion. Meaning, families are using one trash bin at home, instead of using school, work, public, and restaurant garbage bins too. This displacement of waste shows the reality of trash humans produce, and because the diversion of trash took place so quickly, waste and recycling facilities have become overwhelmed and overloaded.
Collection delays have taken place, prioritizing garbage collection first. This also means, with an increase in the purchasing of packaged foods, recycling has also increased in places around the world. Most industrial recycling facilities can not handle a huge volume increase all at one time, as items are sorted by hand. It became difficult to sort recyclables while staying physically distanced as well. Some facilities, such as the one in Calgary, had also seen Covid outbreaks and a halt to curbside collections. In Calgary, this caused all recycling pick up to be diverted to landfills for two full weeks. Calgary is not the only location this occurred, seeing closures across Canada and the United States.
So why does garbage get first priority? This is a great question to ask, as our world is being taken over by landfill waste at an alarming rate, posing many environmental threats. Garbage is by far the largest waste category even outside of the pandemic, totalling higher than both recycling and compost collection combined in Ontario. It wouldn’t be surprising if other parts of the country had these same statistics. Something in this waste hierarchy has to change, and it starts with everyone producing it.
Waste and Homelife
Upon the pandemic announcement in March, companies and schools put forth efforts to work and learn from home. As a result, meal prep and avoiding dine-in experiences due to restaurant closures became a whole lot easier. Restaurants in general saw a huge waste decrease, and this change forced many working people to make all their food at home instead of purchasing packaged meals from cafes at work. Meals eaten at home no longer needed to be put in single use packaging for the commute either, and baking breads instead of buying them has been trending, reducing plastic waste.
Being more isolated at home is also connected to grocery store clearouts and shopping for food. Many began to quickly stock extra food for the anticipation of a lockdown. Although lockdowns have been happening, they haven’t happened everywhere. For the most part, non perishables, baking supplies, animal proteins, and even certain produce items were flying off the shelves. This was the result of more bulk purchases and could potentially be linked to the 8% increased volume of compost collected (not including yard waste) during March and April. With more families eating only at home, and buying more bulk purchases, there is a larger possibility food will go bad and be wasted.
At the same time, working from home also means no work commute, reducing cars on the road and with it, air pollution. Perhaps working on site is slightly more overrated than we thought when a job can in fact be performed remotely part time.
Personal Protective Equipment
Medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) have been in high demand due to increased health precautions and people taking extreme measures to ensure the safety of themselves and those around them. PPE has also been used by many members of the public, wearing masks and gloves more regularly in public spaces. Protecting ourselves and those around us is extremely important, however, the use of these items by non health professionals has caused improper and disrespectful item disposal.
Gloves and masks are constantly thrown on the street. These items are non compostable and made of synthetic material, meaning if disposed of anywhere except a garbage bin they could cause extreme environmental damage. Gloves and masks thrown on the street get swept into storm sewers with water runoff, which leads all the way to the ocean. Another way PPE has been wrongly disposed of is through plumbing, flushed down the toilet. This causes huge drain issues, as seen in Vancouver, where the flushed PPE has caused clogged sewage and water treatment plants.
Greg Rasmussen from CBC News says that “many facilities across Canada and around the world [are] seeing an uptick in discarded masks, gloves and wet wipes being flushed down the toilet and causing treatment problems since the advent of COVID-19”. Just like any other material that is not natural or meant to be disposed of in plumbing or nature, these PPE items belong in the garbage. Interestingly enough, the same masks and gloves meant for protecting are the ones hurting other animals, causing problems at water treatment plants that we require, and all taxpayers footing the bill for expensive equipment maintenance. An increased use of PPE has had a huge impact on waste around the world, and the lesson from the story here is to just dispose of those items how they were designed to be disposed of. In the garbage.
That being said, researchers at the University of British Columbia are searching for alternatives to this huge health waste, and have found that creating masks made from wood fibre might be a good biodegradable option. Covid-19 has certainly prompted the search for sustainability, looking to replace some of the most practical, useful, and wasteful materials.
Waste and the Zero Waste Journey
Lastly, zero waste and environmentally conscious initiatives have taken a slight detour along the scenic route for the time being. From experience, my journey towards zero waste has changed too, affected by the closure of bring your own container policies at bulk stores and having to purchase packaged pantry supplies in its place. Many others have had similar experiences, and when a zero waste support group was asked how Covid-19 had changed their zero waste journey, the answers showed similar experiences across the board.
Some zero waste advocates who participated had almost no single use plastic in their homes prior to Covid, and said that the past 12 weeks had yielded unavoidable plastic in order to feed and look after their families. Most of this was due to bring your own container rules and grocery stores in some areas not allowing reusable bags brought from home. Others had said disinfecting with harmful products had been another impact, wiping down surfaces and personal items to ensure the safety of their family members. Even trying to balance supporting local businesses and minimizing waste has become difficult. For example, purchasing from a local coffee shop but the store no longer accepting reusable mugs or sitting in service.
Although single use packaging may have gone through the roof, the zero waste detour is not all bad news. Reusing first before buying new has been a result of so many products and services being unavailable. Upcycled projects and making materials from scratch such as brown sugar are ways to continue reducing waste. There are always other ways to reduce if for the time being a few aspects cannot be avoided. Keeping positive thoughts about supporting environmental change is one of the most important things we can do, because this too shall pass. And when it does the zero waste journey will be back on track.
Waste continues to affect lives all around the world, through so many aspects of how we live and treat the world around us. From more packaged purchases, to an overload of recyclables, shopping in bulk, to increased food waste. Each decision made by someone has a direct affect on something else. Take the discarded PPE as an example of how a decision by many individuals caused frustration and clogging for those working in a wastewater treatment facility.
Regardless of zero waste journeys being put on hold for now, or the diversion of recycling to landfills, one thing is for certain. Humans are an incredibly wasteful species. Covid-19 is like the check engine light blinking in your car to warn of a breakdown if the problem is not fixed. Or the sounding of an alarm when there is a hole in your ship. If our disposable lifestyle is not changed, the car will break down and the ship will sink. Returning to “normal” post Covid is not a viable option for the sustainability of the world. Each person has a role to play in changing the wasteful habits of our world as a whole. The warning signals have been going on long enough. We can do it, we just have to work together.