Increase in single-use plastics during the pandemic harms the environment

by Sabrina Zhu, Assistant STEM Editor

The rise of single-use plastics and other waste used for safety and protection during the pandemic can leave a lasting, negative mark on our environment. 

Michelle Liu

Supermarkets and convenience stores have transitioned to single-use packaging and bags in order to decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19. Large corporations like Target and Whole Foods no longer allow customers to bring their own reusable bags, and food and drink brands like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts do not accept personal cups or mugs anymore. 

Michelle Liu

“COVID-19 made a huge impact [on the environment]. A lot of stores and farmers’ markets have forbidden the use of reusable bags for loading up your produce, so they have forced the emergence of single use plastic bags,” said upper school biology teacher Kate Schafer.

Additionally, the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) advises that restaurants planning to reopen should consider switching to plastic utensils and plates and individually-packaged condiments.

Since the start of the pandemic, multiple states and cities have delayed or paused their restrictions on single-use plastics. San Francisco, which banned disposable plastic bags in 2007, temporarily lifted the ban to protect customers and retailers. Other states have taken similar action, with Maine and New York postponing their bans on single-use plastics and Oregon and Massachusetts removing restrictions.

Michelle Liu

A study published in August for the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection predicts that the plastic demand for packaging will increase by 40% and plastic demand in other areas will increase by 17% due to the pandemic.

Furthermore, the loss of waste management companies means that recycled plastic cannot be treated correctly. US cities have restricted recycling streams, so single-use plastics are mixed with solid waste.

Our planet and our ecosystem are extremely sensitive to plastic, and this new surge may be difficult to recover from.

Michelle Liu

“Big chunks of plastic are obviously terrible, and there’s been a ton of research done on how plastic impacts seabirds and how when microplastics get into the tissues of organisms, they don’t function the way that they should,” said Dr. Schafer. “There have been many papers on the effects, especially on aquatic ecosystems. And many species, especially seabirds, mistake plastic for food and then it gets stuck in their stomachs and they starve.”

Although climate change activist Radha Mehta (10) agrees that plastic is more “necessary in these times,” she believes that there are still ways to protect our environment.

“There are simple things everyone can do. Every time you see some kind of plastic packaging, just find out if there’s an alternative where you don’t need plastic. There are a lot of zero waste stores online that you can look at, too,” said Radha.