Plastic waste is increasing as restaurants use more disposable packaging

A woman wearing a face mask and plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclable materials through the streets of lower Manhattan during the novel coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) outbreak on April 16, 2020 in New York City.

Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

With the country reopening after months of lockdown, consumers and restaurants are increasingly reliant on single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils due to health concerns from the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the outbreak began, cities and states made some strides in banning plastic bags, switching from single-use plastic ending up in the ocean to paper or reusable products.

But now cities and states have delayed or reversed those bans on plastic bags for fear that reusable products could spread disease. Many retailers prohibit customers from bringing reusable bags. And the municipalities are reducing recycling for health reasons.

The surge in single-use plastics is taking a heavy blow to tackling plastic pollution, which is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund.

The problem is particularly evident in the catering industry and the increasing dependence on food delivery services. Many restaurants, including those that contained plastic waste prior to the pandemic, do not limit the amount of plastic that can be found in take-away orders.

For example, the popular Just Salad chain produced reusable trays that saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic annually. When the pandemic hit the chain, the company immediately halted the program, closing restaurants, and turning to delivery and pickup – both of which meant using only single-use packaging.

“The environmental impact is definitely real,” said Sandra Noonan, Just Salad’s chief sustainability officer.

Employees at Sushi Taro sushi restaurant help fulfill orders on May 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.

Sarah Silbiger | Getty Images

The shift through the salad chain is similar to that of many popular restaurants when the pandemic broke out, including Starbucks and Dunkin ‘, where customers were no longer able to use reusable cups.

Michael Oshman, CEO of the Green Restaurant Association, said it was too early to predict how much more waste had been created due to the pandemic.

However, most local economies do not have the infrastructure for reusable or compostable packaging to take away. And environmentalists are warning of the pandemic, which could discourage consumers from reusable products just as advances were made.

“The plastics industry used the pandemic as an opportunity to convince people that single-use plastics are necessary to keep us safe and that reusable materials are dirty and dangerous,” said John Hocevar, leader of the ocean campaign at Greenpeace. “The fact that none of these things are backed by the best science available was irrelevant.”

“The exploitation of Covid-19 fears has ultimately reduced people’s safety and distracted attention from the need to focus on risk of airborne transmission and critical measures such as wearing masks and maintaining social distancing” , he added.

A major challenge will be reintroducing the zero-waste policy once the pandemic has finally subsided. However, there is a chance that delivery services will establish themselves as zero-waste options and that reusable or reusable systems will develop.

One solution, however, could be relatively easy for restaurants to adopt: customers are asked to log in if they want plastic paraphernalia for their pick-up or delivery orders, which typically include a range of single-use plastic products.

Just Salad implemented the change to its own online ordering platform at the start of the lockdown, saying it saved money and reduced the consumption of paraphernalia for those orders by 88%. The chain’s sustainability officer speaks to third-party delivery services to make the shift universal.

A customer wearing a protective mask receives a takeaway meal from a restaurant in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, California on May 20, 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Tullberg | Getty Images

While Oshman urges restaurants to find better solutions than single-use plastics – like using single-use packaging with high levels of post-consumer waste – he also said that operators can try making changes elsewhere to reduce the environmental cost of the business reduce.

“There are still a lot of things that you can still control. For example, what kind of detergents do you use to disinfect everything?” he said.

Oshman also suggested generating a QR code so customers can read the menus on their smartphones rather than the one-way menus. And restaurateurs can recycle the disposable masks and gloves spilled by their employees through Terracycle, a New Jersey-based recycler that collects non-recyclable waste and turns it into raw materials for manufacturers.

“The delays and reversals in moving away from single-use plastics are unfortunate and counterproductive, but they will be short-lived,” said Hocevar.

“As our understanding of the impact plastic has on the health of our planet and our communities continues to grow, it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to move away from single-use plastics quickly,” he added.

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