How COVID-19 made us forget our morals on plastic

Pre-pandemic, we cared about our habits of plastic use. Lockdown changed all that - but it's not too late to continue the fight

With all that’s been going on with the COVID-19, we forgot about another killer – plastic.

Going plastic free can seem daunting. There are pieces of it are everywhere, destroying our oceans, animals, and ultimately our planet. Pre-pandemic, we cared about what David Attenborough had to say on our habits of plastic use, educated ourselves on sustainability buzzwords and even stocked up on refillable beauty products. What changed our morals on plastic? A global outbreak of a deadly virus.

When lockdown was imposed, my sister and I decided to sign up to a meal prep delivery service called Hello Fresh, seeing as at-home cooking was here to stay for the foreseeable.

It would be crass to describe a business as having impacted positively from coronavirus. However, the meal-kit home-delivery market has clearly been a beneficiary of an environment that has seen millions of us locked up at home.

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A spokesperson from Hello Fresh says stats revealed an 88 percent increase in business in July 2020 compared to July 2019. This proves that sales were boosted by shoppers’ reluctance to visit supermarkets, as well as us having more time to cook and no restaurants to visit.

How COVID-19 made us forget our plastic morals

I quickly fell for the meal kits. It handles menu planning and food shopping for you, so there’s little not to like. Nonetheless, I soon realised I was excusing the amount of plastic I was being sent with my love for my newly created, convenient life. The pandemic hadn’t just changed how I shopped: it had changed how I viewed plastic.

Pre-lockdown, I would have felt ashamed ordering single-use plastic on repeat. In fact, I would go as far as to say I would have stopped the orders altogether. A spokesperson didn’t reply to my direct contact. But the company states on its website that it’s a ‘very mindful of the sustainability of packaging and aims to use packaging that contains recycled materials.’ They use packaging that can, ‘where possible, be recycled in order to reduce our footprint and impact on the environment’.

However, it’s clear that when fresh groceries, meat and even store cupboard staples like mayonnaise, vinegar and dried herbs are arriving in plastic sachets and pots, there’s an issue.

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But some could argue plastic has been a hero, not a villain, during the pandemic. Hello Fresh and other meal delivery services are not going to ditch their packaging now, at a time when a demand for plastic packaging is back on the rise due to its protective properties from germs, plus its ability to extend product shelf life.

Recently my sister started buying packs of plastic water bottles again. She perceives it to be more hygienic than her usual refillable water bottle. And we’re all guilty of the odd Amazon order or five, which means more material is being generated at household level.

‘The world is breathing better, objectively,’ says Tom Szaky, the founder and CEO of American recycling company TerraCycle. ‘This is the great irony – the world will breathe better but wake up to an even bigger garbage crisis.’

Has focus on COVID-19 stopped vital action in other areas?

The coronavirus outbreak has pushed the government into a state of inaction. With the main priority rightly being the limitation of the spread of the virus, the UK ban on plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds has been delayed indefinitely. MPs have also lifted the charge on single-use plastic bags for online grocery delivery.

I’m hugely thankful for food delivery services. It’s also pleasing to see cafes and restaurants beginning to think about opening again across the UK. That’s not only because we all have a whole new appreciation for food made by pros. Ever heard of a food waste app called Too Good To Go? It enables you to buy surplus food  for a fraction of the price, so it doesn’t go in the bin. Think loaves of bread to pastries and groceries.

Jamie Crummie, co-founder of the genius app, tells me, ‘During lockdown, we all reconnected with food. Whether that was learning to bake bread from scratch, or making sure to eat everything in our fridges.’

‘Now that we’re venturing into this ‘new normal’ it’s important that we maintain this mindset. By making small changes to how we think about waste, we can all play a part in ensuring that we emerge from the crisis stronger.’

Tonnes of plastic dumped

Away from the kitchen, the bathroom is an equally concerning place. From face wipes, sheet masks and wet wipes to plastic products galore, all in all a shocking 13 million tonnes of plastic are dumped in the world’s oceans every year, estimating to kill millions of marine animals, according to the National Geographic website.

Positively, brands are making changes. I loved discovering that plastic-free, UK-based beauty company KinKind, which leading the way for sustainable beauty routines and producing vegan friendly and plastic and water-free shampoo, conditioner and body wash bars. They’ve saved 20,000 plastic bottles from British shores since January 2020.

Eco-anxiety has been replaced with economic anxiety. Instead of packaging guilt, we’re hard on ourselves for not being productive with our use of excess time. But what we do in the next few years will determine the future of our world. We know the solutions to climate chaos and there’s still time to act. Just.

As Tom Szaky so eloquently says, COVID-19 is showing the world is breathing better when we slow down. I hope this encourages the environmental movement to move forward.

While I have you, Marie Claire is currently taking a stand against period plastic. We are actively supporting environmentalist Ella Daish and her campaign to #EndPeriodPlastic. This means applying pressure to brands and supermarkets to take responsibility for the unnecessary plastic they are putting into these products, by removing plastic from their period products. This includes tampons, applicators, pads, wrappers and packaging. To sign Ella’s petition, please click here.

We must not let the coronavirus crisis turn back the tide on the fight against single-use plastic. Read our guides to sustainable living and how to create your own green office, while you’re here.

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