It’s July and in America, and that usually conjures up visions of backyard BBQs and trips to the local pool. But more recently, July isn’t just about America’s independence or what to do with the kids once summer is officially underway. It’s also been a month increasingly known for seeking independence from a relatively new tyrant: single-use plastic. In recent years, July has been rebranded as “Plastic-free July,” a growing global movement to raise awareness and help abolish single-use plastic.
The goal of Plastic-free July is to get individuals to take the challenge to stop using one-time disposable plastic items. Prior to 2020, the movement had inspired 250 million people in 177 different countries to take action. I was one of them.
Action is imperative. It has been estimated that at the current pace of plastic pollution, by the year 2050, the oceans will be home to more plastic than fish. And the problem is not just litter, but the fact that we use something for a few minutes or hours once but then it lasts longer than our own lifetime in the ocean, landfill or wherever it ends up. For example, a single-use plastic bag takes 500 years to decompose. Many of these materials do not biodegrade so they build up in the environment. Think about all the plastic each of us uses and multiply that by billions of humans and you can start to grasp the enormity of the problem.
Most people would agree, we should curb our consumption of such an environmentally destructive material.
Plastic and Covid
But 2020 isn’t a typical year. As cases of Covid-19 increase and America leads the world in both the number of Covid cases and deaths, it’s hardly summer as usual. In fact, the pandemic means no large gatherings for those of us who want to be cautious, masks when we’re out in public, social distancing of 6 feet, and in some situations, gloves or even PPE. We’ve spent months going without so many of our social norms and changing our usual ways in an attempt to stay home and stay safe.
But in the throes of a highly contagious disease where so many people are getting sick, suffering serious consequences, and many are dying, I find myself wrestling with this question: Does it make sense to try and curb my plastic consumption this year?
To get to the answer, I considered these facts about plastic consumption during Covid:
- Single-use plastics: The Economist reported in a recent article that the consumption of single use plastic may have grown 250-300% in the US since Covid began.
- Masks: Grand View research forecasted the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800M in 2019 to $166B in 2020.
- Wipes: We know that use of disposable goods have increased, including things like wipes. It was already a billion dollar a year marketplace and 6% growth is forecasted. While most people don’t think wipes are plastic, the substrate is usually made up of a blend of materials including plastics and those contribute to more than just plastic pollution, as they often get flushed and clog home and municipal water systems at great expense.
- Plastic bags: The phase-out of polystyrene bags being implemented in New York and California, among other states and cities around the country prior to Covid-19, have been granted temporary stays or reversals. Now the market is growing in double-digits according to some manufacturers when it was intended to be shrinking.
- Plastic food containers: Food containers and takeout have also skyrocketed during the pandemic as judged by the growth in the food delivery sector with Uber Eats reporting more than 50% growth in the first quarter of the year.
Theses stats are helpful, but so is remembering that most plastic contains endocrine active ingredients known also as “hormone disruptors” which can interfere with our own hormonal system. Interfering with hormones can lead to thyroid issues, developmental and reproductive issues, even cancer.
For me, the notion of quitting plastic isn’t just noble, it’s smart and it’s possibly even more important in our current situation than before. (The danger of Covid-19 will eventually go away but plastic pollution is here to stay.)
Ways to Participate in Plastic-Free July During Covid
It’s valuable for each of us to investigate where plastic comes into our home and where we might be able to reduce it. Here are some ways my family is going to strive for a Plastic-free July while still trying to avoid Covid:
- At stores and now that my Farmer’s Market has opened, I bring my own bags and limit the number of new plastic single-use plastic bags I require. At the grocery store when I can’t use my own bag, I continue to politely request paper as an alternative to plastic.
- Masks: Not a typical Plastic-free July item, but then 2020 hasn’t been typical. There are so many masks to choose from and I’ve determined that natural fabrics are the best option for my family. I made my own using a bandana (or cloth napkin) folded in half, I have bought some made from organic cotton and ones made from retired men’s shirts. The point is, everyone in my family carries a mask with them at all times and they are washable and reusable. This means we won’t have to grab a disposable mask (likely made with woven plastic fibers) when we head out to public places. Here are ideas to make DIY masks and here.
- Gloves: I also carry my own gloves. My gloves are not latex or plastic. They are cotton and can be washed and reused again and again. I prefer gloves to constant hand-sanitizing and washing.
- Wipes: Using one without a plastic substrate that is instead made of a biodegradable material is preferable. Also, consider having rags and cleaner spray that can be used then washed when needed.
- Hand Sanitizers: Sanitizer often comes in small plastic containers, look for refillable ones or even options bottled in glass.
- Food containers: If you are ordering in / doing curbside pick-up, ask for no plastic cutlery or straws, and minimal amount of packaging as possible. Also ask restaurants to forego plastic in exchange for paper whenever possible. Many foods can be boxed in compostable cardboard rather than plastic.
- Miscellaneous opportunities: Think about the containers your personal care products and home cleaning products come in. Look for bulk buying options and stores offering refills as well as companies that sell in bulk, package without plastic, or are working toward solutions. This can be a starting point.
Remember that everywhere you can avoid plastic is helpful – we are living through a time of lax and racist environmental protections and must speak up and act out. Support those companies working toward safe and sustainable solutions by voting with your dollars to support their commitment to the environment. Send them some love on social media because your voice matters. In fact, what you buy, who you buy it from and who you reward with a shout-out or a “like” on social media matters more than you may think.
Whatever you decide about where you stand on Plastic-free July, I hope you’ll be safe, conscientious, kind and healthy.