The coronavirus caused Lauren Singer to do something she hasn’t done in eight years: she created waste.
Singer is one of the activists most associated with the waste-free movement. She first went viral in 2014 when her annual direct trash production was so small, it fit in a single mason jar. Since then, she’s opened a mecca for waste-reducing strivers, a shop called Package Free in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that sells shampoo bars, bamboo silverware, and biodegradable vibrators, and provides bins for hard-to-recycle items like e-waste and candy wrappers.
But with the pandemic disrupting daily routines for millions of Americans. The waste-free movement has taken a hit during the coronavirus pandemic as paranoid consumers shun reusable items like bags and coffee thermoses in favor of single-use items while simultaneously picking up new habits, including wearing single-use gloves and masks to venture outside. At the same time, systems have also changed that have made it harder to reduce waste. Trader Joe’s has banned reusable bags, communities across the country are questioning whether recycling—one of the most ingrained waste-reduction habits—counts as essential, and in some cases like San Francisco, outright suspending it. Composting—something better for reducing waste than recycling—is on hold in places like New York City, which is suspending its curbside composting pilot for more than a year due to budget cuts tied with the pandemic.
But the coronavirus also represents an opportunity. It’s caused some anti-waste advocates to change their own habits, at least temporarily, and reevaluate the future of their movement. Quarantine has forced many people to be more self-sufficient, from cooking more meals at home to extending the life of their wardrobe, new habits that mean we could come out of this thing with the opportunity to create less waste than before.
For Singer, the worsening situation in New York made her realize it was time for compromise.
“Instead of taking the time and going to a bunch of stores and buying things in bulk and possibly exposing myself, I made the decision to go to one store quickly, buy a bunch of things quickly, whatever I could find,” she told Earther. She ended up buying frozen foods wrapped in plastic packaging. Normally she avoids buying even recyclable items, as recycling is still a resource-intensive and deeply flawed way of reducing waste, but she packed her quarantine pantry with canned foods, too.
She said the crisis forced her to go against her top value—producing zero waste for the good of the planet and people—in order to protect her neighbors.
“That decision was really a hard one, but it was really the right one,” said Singer, whose store is closed but still doing online orders.
Protecting public health is the most important thing right now, but the pandemic is a tough setback for the movement to reduce waste that has gained great traction in recent years. The plastics industry has been exploiting the crisis to reassert itself and push back against plastic bag bans, dubiously calling reusable bags “germ-filled.” They are ignoring, of course, that a customer’s clothes, wallet or purse might carry the same germs a cloth bag would; not to mention that single-use bags, cups or utensils could be handled by a dozen people from factory to kitchen before they touch your mouth.
The messaging around breaking America’s addiction to creating waste has always been a tricky one because it generally involves doing less. Buy less, drive less, stop doing things that contribute to America’s love of easy, disposable items that are used for a few minutes before being dumped in the ocean or the developing world forever.
“For somebody like myself who’s been doing this my whole life and who works in this movement, the idea of throwing away a steel can or aluminum can that can be easily recyclable, is anathema to me and my family,” said Matt Prindiville, the CEO of Upstream, a nonprofit that works with industries and governments to reduce plastic waste, and whose rural Maine community has suspended recycling during the pandemic. “We’re still figuring that out.”
The return of disposable culture, while understandable in our overly cautious moment right now, seems based on junk science and unfounded assumptions.
Studies show that coronavirus can last on plastic longer than paper or cloth, and even the plastic wrap around produce may be carrying more virus than the food itself. Some health officials, such as the Cleveland Clinic, advise against wearing gloves when leaving the house, saying they give a false sense of security and could actually lead to further contamination. Washing hands and maintaining social distance beats plastic any day.
“I am worried about the core messaging that I’m afraid is subconsciously being conveyed,” Kathryn Kellogg, who runs the site Going Zero Waste, told Earther. “I want to be sure the message we’re conveying for the future is: plastic wrap does not equal sanitary.”
Prindiville has adapted by ordering more delivery groceries and turning to Amazon (and all the waste that comes with it) for products he would normally get from local stores such as vitamins and supplements, batteries, and an air purifier.
“There’s a lot more packaging all of a sudden,” he said.
But despite the plastic industries’ best efforts, the pandemic may actually end up being the hard reset advocates were hoping for. Even before the Pandemic, Upstream Solutions was making the case to switch from single-use coffee cups, disposable plates, and plastic utensils to reusable items as a way to save restaurants money. Now, when many small businesses are struggling financially throughout the lockdown, they may be eager to embrace more cost-saving measures afterwards that also reduce waste.
“We have an opportunity to look at what’s working and what’s not working, and create some systems that work better,” Prindiville said. “It’s the silver lining of this moment. For the first time in who knows how long, our society has slowed down, we’re able to assess what’s really important.”
Kellogg has taken on more trash herself in the form of plastic grocery and produce bags and plastic tubs of yogurt instead of the yogurt she used to make herself. The crisis has re-emphasized for her how much privilege and access are involved in the waste-free movement.
“It’s been so easy for me, where I live, to make sustainable choices,” she said. She’s originally from Arkansas, and said her options for cutting down waste there would be severely limited during the crisis, where people may rely more on big box stores and less on coops with bulk item sections.
“It’s even forcing me to realize at a larger scale how much our hands are really tied in terms of the access that we have,” she said. She posted pictures on her Instagram of the takeout food waste she has been generating, saying she wasn’t going to hide it. Many restaurants, if they’re open at all, are stuck doing only take-out orders right now. That leaves them with no choice but to create more waste. Folks like Kellogg who value both sustainability and supporting local businesses have to balance the trade off and meditate on what’s more important right now. Kellogg said in the post that her local restaurants have been supportive of her bringing her own to-go containers in the past, so she wants to support them now, even when that isn’t an option.
Post-pandemic, she wants the movement to focus less on consumer choices and more on manufacturers who produce wasteful products in the first place. One way would be to work on a reclamation system where manufacturers are responsible for collecting and reusing their own packaging. It’s an idea that has gained some traction in the form of the Break Free From Plastic Act, a bill Senator Tom Udall and Representative Alan Lowenthal proposed in February. The bill would put the burden on big corporations to create a recycling program for their own plastic, similar to the “bottle bills” that let people redeem soda containers for a cash refund. The bill is a long shot, but environmentalists are putting more pressure on companies directly to take responsibility for all the plastic they’re putting into the world.
“When our consumer choices are limited, we have to make sure their products are being packaged more responsibly,” Kellogg said.
Singer said the quarantine, paired with endless YouTube tutorials and lifehacks for everything just a Google search away, is already forcing people to be more self-reliant, which inherently produces less waste. People are baking their own bread, regrowing their own scallions, and dusting off sewing machines to alter their own clothes.
“The skills that we could learn could outweigh the negative impacts of the trash we’ve created,” she said. “It’s the first time ever we’re applying pastoral lifestyles in the technological age. We have how-to guides for everything we ever want to learn coupled with a luxury of time to be able to experience those things. I’m curious to see what the world looks like on the other side.”
It’s hard to talk about the positive environmental effects of the shutdown without sounding like Thanos. And we shouldn’t be cheering the virus by any means or the chaos it’s created. But at the same time, some of the changes that have occurred are a preview of what could come after we come out of lockdown. Singer said this moment is revealing, for instance, just how easy it is for many people to work from home, reducing carbon emissions from commuting.
The virus has changed her habits for the time being, but she’ll always feel safer with her reusable items, pandemic or not.
“I love multi-use items,” she said, “because I know it went from my clean sink and then went into my mouth.”