With planes grounded, roads clear, emissions slashed and less noise and light pollution, at first it seemed the coronavirus pandemic might have an environmental benefit. But now the temporary respite is over and, as we venture back outside, it is clear that in other ways, things have got worse. Online shopping (with its excess packaging), disposable masks and gloves, the manufacture of visors and screens and an increase in takeaway food and drink have meant a boom in plastic just as people were starting to wake up to its environmental impact. The International Solid Waste Association estimates that single-use plastic has grown by up to 300% in the US. Some of it is necessary for now – the disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) that health and care workers use, for instance – but for the rest of us, if we are to live with this pandemic for the foreseeable future, it’s probably time to get into better habits. Here is some advice from experts.
Should you use a disposable mask?
Ideally not (unless, of course, you are a medical professional). “If they’re single-use, the current guidance is that they should go into a bag and then into a bin, or straight into a bin if it’s a closed bin,” says Rebecca Burgess, the CEO of City to Sea, which campaigns against plastic pollution. “We really encourage everyone to make or buy a reusable mask so they don’t have that impact on the environment.”
If everyone in the UK wears a disposable mask each day for a year, says Louise Edge, a senior plastics campaigner at Greenpeace, “66,000 tonnes of additional plastic waste could be produced, and we’re already using way too much plastic. Most single-use plastic masks for general public use are made from different types of plastic. Some of these plastics can’t be recycled, and waste centres can’t separate the components, so most throwaway plastic masks put in household waste will end up in landfill or incinerators. Over time, single-use plastic masks will break down into tiny microplastic particles that are too small to ever be removed from the ocean or rivers.”
Reusable fabric masks are perfectly adequate for use by the general public, and some even think they are a better option than disposable masks.
For the most eco-friendly option, Burgess says there are several companies making masks from secondhand or recycled material (avoiding virgin synthetic fibres). Alternatively, you can make your own, reusing fabric (there is a tutorial on the City to Sea website, and lots of others online). You may have an old shirt that no longer fits you, a bedsheet or scraps of fabric lying around.
Can you recycle disposable masks?
For most of us, no. TerraCycle, a company that deals with hard-to-recycle objects, has started recycling PPE, but only for businesses and organisations that pay for the service – for example, a mobile phone company has just placed an order for recycling boxes to handle the masks worn by its staff. “You can pretty much recycle anything as long as you can make the economics work,” says Stephen Clarke, the head of communications for TerraCycle Europe. “The only way we can make PPE recycling work is because the end user is going to pay for that box. Your council doesn’t want this waste because it’s hard to separate out from what does have value, and if it were to recycle it, it would cost it more money than it can reclaim from that material.”
Can wipes be recycled?
“No,” says Clarke. “We don’t have a programme for wipes at the moment.” And don’t flush them down the loo.
Do you need to wash everything – masks included – at high temperatures?
It is important to wash masks after each use, says Maitreyi Shivkumar, a virologist and lecturer in molecular biology at De Montfort University Leicester. But, she says, “there’s no concrete evidence” on how to do the laundry. NHS guidelines on the home-washing of work uniforms advises washing with detergent at 60C (140F). For the public, “the likelihood of you coming into contact with really high amounts of virus is relatively low. It’s unlikely you’ll need to use a high temperature.”
Could you wash with temperatures as low as 20C to save energy? “I don’t really see an issue with using lower temperatures,” she says, adding that it’s the detergent that’s important and that “this is for everyday normal use where you know the likelihood of someone having Covid is low”. If you or someone in your household is suspected of having the virus, then their clothes, sheets and towels should be washed on the hottest setting. If not, says Edge, “washing masks in the same load [as your normal laundry] reduces the environmental impact”.
What should you do if you see masks and gloves littered?
PPE is becoming a visible form of litter. “There are lots of hazards to wildlife from plastic of all shapes and sizes, such as getting tangled, eating it, choking, feeding it to young and using it for nests,” says Edge.
If you see discarded masks and gloves, what should you do? “The guidance is you shouldn’t pick them up with your bare hands because they may be contaminated,” says Burgess. “Inform the local council or park wardens.” She suggests that if you’re a keen litter-picker, it’s worthwhile investing in a litter pick – one of those sticks with a grabber at the end. “They’re great if you want to start helping our environment by collecting any litter – I’d get a secondhand litter pick.”
Should you wear disposable gloves?
Almost certainly not, although there were reports in the past week that ministers are looking into whether to encourage it. “I’ve seen people wear gloves, and I think it makes them feel like they’re protected, but just wearing gloves doesn’t mean that the virus isn’t going to get on the gloves and then whatever you touch,” says Shivkumar. “I think it gives people a false sense of security. The latex ones, which don’t absorb water, are likely to actually keep the droplets with the virus on there for longer. I think people shouldn’t be concerned about wearing gloves. Just wash your hands, and be aware of not touching your face.”
Disposable gloves “are a real problem environmentally”, says Mark Miodownik, a professor of materials and society at University College London, who heads the Plastic Waste Innovation Hub. “I’ve seen people throwing them on the floor. And yet they are no help in reducing the risk of the spread. No one should be wearing gloves in public – it makes no sense.”
What will happen to all these Perspex screens?
Lots of public interactions are now performed through a plastic screen. “Acrylic is recyclable and screens are sheet form and big enough to be of economic value at the end of their life, so I’m not too worried about that, as long as people do recycle them,” says Miodownik, though he adds he’s doubtful about their efficacy.
Is a bar of soap as good as liquid handwash?
A bar of soap can have less packaging than a (plastic) bottle of handwash, leaving aside the intricate pump that is hard to recycle. Old-fashioned soap, says Shivkumar, “is absolutely fine. Anything that is a detergent will destruct the lipid biolayer shell of the virus.” Look for bars with minimal or no packaging, says Edge. “If you prefer to use soap pumps,” she says, “try a refill service.”
Should you buy plastic bottles of hand sanitiser?
Shivkumar thinks handwashing is better than gel: “It’s more thorough, I think. Only use the alcohol gels when you don’t have any other option.” Where alternatives don’t exist, some plastic items will still be needed, Edge accepts. “If it’s convenient for people to decant their hand sanitiser into a small reusable container from a big refill bottle, that’s great, and can help reduce plastic waste, but that may not be easy or possible for everyone.”
Can you use a reusable coffee cup?
Starbucks and Pret a Manger were among chains that said they could no longer accept reusable cups because the increased touch could spread the infection, but Burgess says it’s fine to use one “as long as they’re washed properly and there’s a process to follow”. City to Sea has launched a “contactless coffee” campaign to encourage cafes and chains to accept reusable cups again, which involves the customer putting their lidless cup on a designated tray. “They move that tray rather than touching the cup itself, so there is no contamination.” You should wash your cup regularly, which may mean washing it with handwash if you’re out for the day (and giving it a good wash at home).
Shivkumar is hesitant to say using a reusable cup is completely safe. “It’s important to think about what the risk is and how the risk can be minimised,” she says. “In a situation where if you are increasing the number of people you – or the cup – are coming into contact with, that is going to increase the risk. I don’t think there’s a black-and-white answer to this.”
However, a statement, signed by 130 academics, scientists and health professionals, came out recently to say it was safe to use reusable cups and bottles. “They highlighted the importance of washing them thoroughly in hot water and detergent or soap, and said to avoid touching the lid or drinking area,” says Edge. “Lots of cafes have put systems in place so that reusable cups can be used safely with social distancing and no-contact processes to keep customers and staff safe.”
Do you really need a takeaway?
Asking yourself that question would be Burgess’s advice. “Takeaway packaging, plastic or not, has flooded the market,” she says, as even restaurants that previously didn’t offer takeaway food now do. Carry your own cutlery if you’re out and about to reduce the use of disposable versions. “If you’re using an online platform, click off the single-use cutlery and small sachets of ketchup option,” she says, if there is one. “That’s a quick win.” She knows of a coffee shop that accepts customers’ own containers so it’s worth trying to encourage others to do the same. “If you can get out and pick up your food, ask them if they can use your plastic container if you take it in for them to pack.”
Think about cutting down online shopping
The boom in online shopping hasn’t only deluged Jeff Bezos’s bank account – it has swamped the world with packaging. “I think we really need to start addressing our consumerism and the amount we’re buying, whether that’s food, luxury goods, clothes or more,” says Burgess. “Is that thing you’re buying to replace something or can you repair the original? Can you buy secondhand? There might have been some interesting pop-ups around reuse and repair opening during this time. Connect into any community platforms, just to see whether there’s an alternative, before you buy something new.”
Reconsider how you shop for food
For many, getting groceries delivered has been a lifeline, but for others, it may have fostered bad habits (the supermarkets, too, have been insisting on delivering in plastic bags). “There have been a lot of changes in shopping habits over the past few months,” says Burgess. “We’d encourage people to try to shop as plastic-free as possible, so using your local greengrocer and butchers, using your own bags.” Alternatively, look for plastic-free delivery companies, such as a glass milk-bottle delivery. “A local veg box is a really good way to get rid of plastic from the supply chain,” says Miodownik. The produce is seasonal, “and these companies tend to be local, which really need people’s custom”. When shopping in the supermarket, you may be reassured by plastic – Miodownik observes that many people seem keener to buy a bag of apples over loose ones. “It’s under this false assumption that it’s going to make it safer, but the plastic itself is just as likely to have the virus on as the apples, and it is actually viable for longer on plastic than most other materials. It’s an illusion of safety, but that’s how plastic has become so popular.” Edge adds that buying loose produce not only means “one less item of plastic degrading in the environment; it also sends a message to companies that people prefer to avoid plastic”.
Should you carshare?
It can be one way of cutting down on emissions – though still far worse, environmentally speaking, than walking, cycling or using public transport – but how safe is it? “I don’t think carsharing is a good idea,” says Shivkumar. “If you are carsharing with someone different every day, that increases the risk, whereas if it’s with the same person that’s probably safer. But you’d have to keep in mind that if someone in your family or theirs tested positive, both households would have to self-isolate.” Having the windows open would be a good idea, and she advises people to wear a mask, “because it is a confined, small space with not much airflow”. The government says “you should try not to” carshare with people outside your household or bubble.