Rise in plastic use during the pandemic poses a threat to the environment

How often have you ordered take-out since quarantine began?

At the beginning of March, I cooked my own meals most nights. When I wasn’t doing that, I was able to attend the dining hall and use my swipes for a pre-made meal served on reusable dishes. After school closed down and the country went into quarantine, I flew back home to self-isolate. Suddenly, it became hard to go to the grocery store and cook my own meals. My breakfasts, lunches, and dinners soon consisted almost entirely of a myriad of to-go orders. It was more convenient: I couldn’t go out to eat now, so why not order in this one time? Or, as it ended up being, for the next few months.

I slowly began to realize as the used to-go boxes stacked higher and higher in our garbage bin how often we were ordering food and, more importantly, how much plastic we were wasting. My single-use plastic problem wasn’t something I could just avoid by tossing out a tray in a public garbage can; it was in my face now. 

My family wasn’t the only one. In March, digital restaurant orders increased by 63% and delivery by 67% across the United States as in-person restaurant traffic died down. The restaurant industry, despite some previous efforts made to curtail its plastic waste, suddenly relied entirely (up until recent reopenings) on take-out orders. John Glass, lead equity analyst covering the U.S. restaurant sector, spoke about the momentum of delivery services in the last few months thanks to the pandemic.

“We see total online food delivery — through online delivery platforms and restaurant self-delivery — of $45 billion in 2020, vs. our prior estimate of $41 billion in 2021, reaching 13% of the addressable market this year and 16% by 2022, vs. 2025 in our prior estimate,” Glass said. 

About three years worth of consumer spending has been pushed forward, further accelerating delivery platforms’ growth.

While profits in the restaurant industry are known to be minimal even in good conditions (about 5%), many of the costs are sunk — the land, building, kitchen fixtures, etc. — regardless of whether or not the restaurant is open. Restaurants are now, out of absolute necessity, trying to minimize losses by focusing on contribution margin — i.e. revenue minus variable costs like food and labor. Combine this with a widespread emphasis on hygiene practices for food preparation, handling, and delivery, and restaurants today focus on contactless delivery with cheap one-time-use utensils. 

Before the start of the pandemic, some cities and states were making progress on banning plastic bags, shifting from single-use plastic to paper products and encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags. Since quarantine, however, downloads for grocery delivery app Instacart shot up by 215% between February 14 and March 15 alone. In the weekend following COVID-19 being declared a pandemic, Instacart downloads spiked 50%, while downloads for Walmart’s grocery app increased by 45%. These grocery delivering services prevent customers from using reusable bags at check-out and consequently add, though perhaps unintentionally, to their plastic usage. Even in person, many retailers are banning customers from using their reusable bags in fear that these products will spread disease. Municipalities have also scaled back recycling operations due to health concerns. This environmental fallout should be concerning, especially given that the ecological consequences of our actions will last far longer than any pandemic concerns.

Though some progress was being made, plastic use was still widespread before COVID-19. From its introduction in World War II, plastic cutlery was at first considered reusable. But as the post-war economy boomed, the frugal habits of plastic cutlery consumers faded, instead giving rise to a “throw-away” culture. The U.S. alone uses more than 36 billion disposable utensils a year. Laid end to end, that could wrap around the globe 139 times. Almost 80% of all plastic ever produced is discarded in landfills, scattered across the world’s landscapes or floating in the seas, where many creatures risk being ensnared or eating the pollution. 

In developing nations without well-established solid-waste systems, this problem is exacerbated. The excess plastic is sometimes burned, releasing toxins into the ozone, or tossed aside. The garbage dumped into the ocean is swept by currents into five recirculating gyres (or oceanic currents) creating massive, nautical garbage patches. One of these garbage patches, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers an estimated surface area of 1.6 million square kilometers. That’s twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France. There, the sun and ocean waves decompose the plastic material down into particles small enough to be ingested by zooplankton, which are then eaten by fish and other sea creatures that people consume. The water we drink is also contaminated with these plastic particles: as much as 83% of the world’s drinking-water supplies contain plastic. The statistics are staggering.

Some states in the U.S. are willing to make changes to combat environmental degradation in the age of heightened take-out orders. Maryland, for instance, will become the first state to ban foam containers. When it comes to tackling the issue of single-use plastics restaurants should be at the top of our concern; after all, restaurants account for 78% of disposable packaging and nearly 50% of the waste found in landfills are food waste and its packaging

But, frankly, our carbon footprint isn’t at the top of the agenda for many Americans with the looming pandemic shadowing other persistent and pressing problems. In fact, many may prefer single-use plastic from restaurants and grocers to limit their contact to the virus. Though the concern about the global pandemic is entirely logical, it would also be wise for everyone to see the unintended consequences of ordering takeout and increasing plastic use on the environment.

So what can we do? For restaurant owners, they could try to implement recyclable materials. If consumers express interest in recyclable or compostable options, restaurants may be encouraged to provide that option. It may cost extra now for a more eco-friendly “plastic wrap,” but the long-term benefits far outweigh those short-term prices. Every year in the United States,recyclable material thrown away would be worth $11.4 billion if it were recycled instead. This should also incentivize policy makers on a global scale; not only does it set up the next generation to be more sustainable, but can also be more profitable now. 

The money saved from eventually cutting back on single-use plastics altogether could be redistributed to invest in research and development for eco-friendly tupperware for restaurants to use. As a consumer, the primary step to being more environmentally conscious is to refuse. After all, it’s the first “r” in “refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle.” Simple things like asking for your meal without a straw or cutlery and opting to instead use your own can drastically reduce the massive amount of unrecycled plastic thrown into landfills and the ocean. Or, ordering several meals to last a few days could be useful to maximize each take-out trip. Using as little waste as possible is the goal. 

The statistics make this problem seem daunting, and maybe almost impossible. At least, that’s how I felt when I first saw the piled up plastic containers in my garbage bin. But modest measures, from the consumer, restaurant industry, and policy-makers add up. We can all be more conscious before we order our next meal.

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