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Our Plastic Planet
Plastic pollution covers the land and sea. Here are practical ways to pull it back. 08/06/2020 By Temma Ehrenfeld

In an already plastic-addicted world, we’ve responded to the coronavirus by using even more disposable plastic. It is the main ingredient in masks, gloves, hand-sanitizer bottles, and much of the packaging that comes when we have things delivered.

So it has never been more important to try to minimize your plastic footprint.

I live alone in an apartment in New York City. In March, when the city had its worst bout of Covid-19, I fell ill and went into quarantine. A friend was buying my groceries. She would arrive with two large bags full and drop them off. I would separate everything I could into individual servings, which I put into plastic bags and froze. When I opened my freezer, I saw a towering wall of plastic bags that sometimes tumbled down on my head.

Also, because I was in quarantine, my apartment building asked my super to dispose of my wet garbage in an elaborate hand-off. I wasn’t allowed in the elevator. We set a time and I would dump my garbage into a huge plastic can lined with two plastic garbage bags, which made my super feel safer. But management decided not to take any of my recyclable bottles, cans, and plastics. Nearly every week, I accumulated a large garbage bag packed with mainly plastic items. By the end of my six weeks indoors, these overflowing bags took up more space than my kitchen table.  

I knew I used too much plastic. But now I was overwhelmed, and of course, it wasn’t just me: our planet and particularly its oceans were choked with plastic waste even before the virus made its unwelcome debut.

Plastic in a Pandemic

Pandemic-related cutbacks in travel gave our atmosphere a moment of grace. In early April, daily global carbon emissions had fallen by 17 percent compared to the year before. But as of June 11, emissions were down only five percent and all gains in China had vanished (Gardiner, 2020).

Meanwhile, there was no relief for our land or our oceans, rather, a deluge. In February, just weeks after the first news of the novel coronavirus in Hong Kong, environmental activist Gary Stokes collected more than 70 discarded protective masks from a beach about the length of a football field on an uninhabited island nearby (Bengali, 2020).

Sadly, this surge has come the same year many countries had promised to slash plastic use. Thailand, for example, had big plans, but now expects a 30 percent rise instead (Thailand Environment Institute, 2020).

There is some good news: The World Bank reports that hundreds of jurisdictions around the world have maintained either bans or fees on single-use plastic packaging (Peszko, 2020). In February 2019 the European Union agreed to clamp down on the plastic products that most often end up in the ocean by 2021 (Winton et al., 2019).

Within the United States, there has been some progress in fighting plastic use: California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and several cities had banned single-use plastic bags (Schultz, 2020).

But the pandemic caused delays or reversals. New Hampshire banned reusable bags for fear that they could carry the coronavirus. Maine postponed its single-use plastic bag ban. California allowed supermarkets to hand out single-use bags for free from the end of March through the end of June. New York State allowed its ban on single-use plastic to go into effect as planned on March 1, then announced it would not be enforced until May 15.

But every store I’ve been in long past that date has supplied me with a single-use plastic bag if I wanted one.

The Plastic Problem

Since 2000, the world has produced as much plastic as in all the years that came before and about a third of it ends up in nature (de Witt et al., 2019).

Every year, more plastic covers the land and flows from our rivers into the ocean, where it can take centuries to break down. Plastic has appeared in the Arctic Sea and the bottom of the ocean’s deepest canyon, the Mariana trench. In 2017, the United Nations reported that about a million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals die each year when they get entangled in plastic debris or swallow it (Marine Pollution, 2017).

Using Less Plastic

So what can you do to reduce your plastic footprint? About half of all the plastic items produced each year are single-use conveniences we can easily ditch, like straws, stirrers, coffee cups, water bottles, and shopping bags. Don’t count on recycling, only around 20 percent is recycled (Franklin-Wallis, 2019). Here’s what you can do:

  • Carry your own reusable water bottle.
  • When you order takeout food, turn down the plastic utensils and use your own.
  • Carry your own reusable cup for coffee and other drinks you buy outside the home.
  • Use wooden stirrers and paper straws.
  • Carry your own tote bag for shopping.
  • Ditch plastic cling wrap you throw out in favor of re-using plastic bags, using recyclable foil, or the new beeswax-impregnated wraps.
  • Use loose-leaf tea with a tea strainer or plastic-free tea bags.
  • Give up gum (most modern versions are made of synthetic elastomers, a form of plastic), and glitter (also plastic) or try plastic-free alternatives.
  • Avoid cleaning products, for the body or the home, that contain tiny plastic microbeads. Seek out products – often found in natural foods stores - with alternative scrubbing particles made of biodegradable materials.

Watching my kitchen fill up with plastic junk taught me a lesson, and I’m a better citizen these days. I recycle those freezer bags: I wash, turn them out and air them in the sun. Instead of buying jugs of distilled water, I boil my own. I bring a backpack and extra lightweight bag for shopping when I remember.  It’s a start.


Bengali S. The COVID-19 pandemic is unleashing a tidal wave of plastic waste. Los Angeles Times. Published June 13, 2020. Accessed July 9, 2020.

de Witt W, Bigaud N, Dalberg Advisors. Assessing Plastic Ingestion From Nature to People. Published 2019.

Franklin-Wallis O. 'Plastic recycling is a myth': what really happens to your rubbish? The Guardian. Published August 17, 2019.

Gardiner B. Why COVID-19 will end up harming the environment. National Geographic. Published July 2, 2020.

Marine Pollution. Ocean Fact Sheet. Published June 2017.

Martichoux A. Plastic bags are banned again in California as COVID-19 order expires. ABC7 San Francisco. Published June 23, 2020.

Peszko G. Plastics: The coronavirus could reset the clock. World Bank Blogs. Published April 7, 2020.

Schultz J. State Plastic and Paper Bag Legislation. National Conference of State Legislatures. Published January 2020.

Solid Waste During COVID-19. Published April 30, 2020.

Winton D, Loiselle S, Toos van Noordwijk L, Kragh G. Plastic Rivers. Plastic Rivers Report. Published 2019.

Marine Pollution. Ocean Fact Sheet. Published June 2017.


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