Can We Stay ‘Green’ During the Pandemic?

How can we stay environmentally friendly during the pandemic?

With all of the restrictions and constraints from this pandemic, I’ve been wondering how the changes we’ve adopted will impact norms when (if?) we get back to “normal.” Will remote work become more prevalent? Will e-learning impact education norms? Will delivery services remain mega popular?

Though restaurants have been barred from hosting dine-in patrons, our hunger for a good meal has been served by carry-out, curbside, and delivery options. I know I’ve already enjoyed a free delivery from Chipotle (with a healthy tip added for the driver, of course). The tricky part, though, is that all these carry-outs and deliveries mean a ton of single-use plastics being used once and then discarded. Is this an adjustment that will stick around?

In some cases, we can still be green during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dunkin’ Donuts uses recyclable bags, food sleeves, and recyclable #5 plastic lids. Many fast food places bag their items in paper bags that (if not greasy or food-stained) can be recycled. Chipotle even prepares their bowls in compostable material with recyclable foil lids.

Many restaurants still use styrofoam containers, however. Some use plastic containers for salads or other items made of #6 plastic, which many recycling programs do not accept. 

Many outlets are using grocery-style plastic bags, which are only recyclable if set aside and turned in to a special collection point (or bundled separately in some curbside programs). This practice might come from convenience (plastic bags are cheap), but some stores are prohibiting or discouraging reusable grocery bags because of the risk of contamination by bringing them from homes into public markets. In this case, using the bags in the store may be a way to mitigate transmission and other contact risks.

Additionally, people are struggling with deciding what to buy or how much of it to get. One item that has been curiously flying off the shelves is bottled water. Along with toilet paper, people feel the need to have tons of water on hand. This is a bit odd, though, because drinking water is not in danger, and our regular use and supply of water haven’t really been impacted. Bottled water should be reserved for people in emergency situations, like those with an unsafe water supply or for people without access to clean water, like anyone experiencing homelessness.

All of this is to say that some of the progress we have been making socially in green living is getting stunted. And in many cases, this is just fine. We need to be prepared to deviate from norms in order to protect ourselves and the common good. 

When it comes to plastics, there are certain levels of usage that we just have to accept. It’s not safe right now to dine in and eat off washable plates with washable silverware, so the level of waste in carry-out will have to be weathered while we follow our rightfully imposed restrictions.

We do not have to write ourselves a blank check for total disregard of the environment, however. And we don’t have to sit back and lower our standards permanently. We can still learn about proper recycling and look closely at the numbers on the plastics and sort them properly to maximize recycling even while our use is increased. We can still use our reusable bags until local authorities deem it unsafe, and we can retain them until the restriction is lifted so that we can use them again. We can store our reusable coffee thermos until stores can safely fill them with our orders again. We can still purchase metal or silicone reusable straws to keep at home and decline straws in our carryout orders (and paper napkins, for that matter, in favor of cloth, washable napkins at home). We can resist panicking or following the herd and not buy bottled water when our regular drinking habits are unchanged.

If we can keep our heads, we can sort through what changes are necessary during this emergency, what practices for green living we can continue practicing, and what things we need to intentionally recommit to doing well when the pandemic abates.

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