By the first Earth Day, in 1970, the phrase Reduce, Reduce, Recycle was a universal mantra. Fifty years later, recycle bins sit alongside trash bins in public parks and streets, airports, restaurants and coffee bars, sports arenas, and even at individual desks in workplaces. Despite decades of public education campaigns, consumers don’t recycle and, when they deposit disposable items into bins, they don’t sort their trash accurately. This twin phenomenon – low recycling rates and high rates of contamination – is common throughout most of the world.
In countries with infrastructure to sort and sell waste streams, most are incinerated because only a few waste streams – principally aluminum and cardboard – have a secondary market to actually complete the recycling process and manufacture products made of ‘recycled’ materials. We simply use too many disposable plastic, paper, glass, and mixed resin products to recycle them and we don’t effectively reduce or reuse in volumes that matter. Greenpeace (2020) demonstrated that products earmarked for recycling mostly end up in landfills anyway.
More and more people recognize that we need to significantly move away from disposables toward durable products wherever we can to reverse the steady increase of unusable trash that pollutes oceans, lakes, and our food chain.
But what about Covid-19 and the potential for virus transmission? The global lockdown has had the effect of rolling back plastic bag bans and increasing the percentage of single-use disposables deployed in the delivery of food. In the case of restaurants trying to survive, the use of disposables for takeout is understandable, but is single-use plastic or paper safer than cloth bags or reusable food tins? The evidence just isn’t there. If properly washed at hygienic temperatures, reusable plates, utensils, cups, and bags or containers are safe unless touched by someone who hasn’t washed their hands and is infected – a problem that must be guarded against under any circumstances. If anything, the novel coronavirus pandemic is going to teach humanity about the need for more frequent and effective hand washing and other important practices, including preventing cross-contamination. If restaurant operators move to less self-service options and more pre-plated or pre-packaged options, there’s no reason why environmental values have to be discarded in the process since they are not inherently in conflict with safety.