Is remote working the solution to single use plastic pollution?

According to a recent UK survey, the positive, eco-friendly habits we’ve picked up at home during the coronavirus lockdown, could help tackle plastic pollution. The survey found 69% of people are now willing to “alter their behaviour to manage a global crisis or existential threat”, indicating a cultural shift is underway.

The survey was commissioned by BRITA UK (which is a manufacturer of water filters), never-the-less the findings are promising.

The study found that before the global pandemic and lockdown, 42% of people purchased bottled water for consumption at home. This figure fell to 32% during lockdown, with people citing reasons such as wanting to reduce plastic consumption in the home (59%), saving money (29%), not being able to access it in stores (10%), or not wanting to transport heavy bottles (20%).

It’s perhaps not surprising that being home more has had an impact on our plastic consumption. In 2018, BRITA UK once again commissioned a survey, this time in partnership with Keep Britain Tidy, which highlighted convenience as a significant driver in consumption of plastic water bottles, listing travelling and meal deals as two particular paths to purchase. Now, according to the study, people are choosing to cook at home more, rather than buying on-the-go or pre-prepared options.

Now that lockdown is easing in parts of the UK, it’s encouraging to see that some survey participants are taking their lessons from lockdown with them as they return to supermarkets, cafes and restaurants. 31% now intending to carry a reusable bottle, 22% expect to think more about the packaging of the food they buy and drink, 30% are expecting to visit coffee shops and restaurants less frequently and, despite decisions by coffee shop chains to stop accepting reusable coffee cups and bottles early on in lockdown, only 5% of consumers think single use items are safer than reusables.

With 61% of those surveyed expecting to work remotely at least part time after the pandemic, let’s hope this trend not only continues, but grows and grows.

But what about single use PPE?

A study published in July from the Pew Charitable Trust in partnership with SYSTEMIQ reinforced previous data that plastic flows into the ocean are expected to triple by 2040. Although this research called out a more positive finding: immediate action using existing technologies, could stem the tide by more than 80%, if key decision-makers are willing to make systemwide changes.

The research found that if no action is taken to address the projected growth in plastic production and consumption, the amount of plastic entering the ocean each year would grow from 11 million metric tons to 29 million metric tons over the next 20 years, equivalent to nearly 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of plastic on each metre of coastline worldwide.

Because plastic remains in the ocean for hundreds of years and may never truly biodegrade, the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean by 2040 could reach 600 million tons—equivalent in weight to more than 3 million blue whales. And COVID-19 has presented additional challenges in the fight to end ocean-bound plastic pollution, as single-use plastic consumption has increased during the pandemic, according to the International Solid Waste Association.

PPE is essential for healthcare workers, who rely on it to protect themselves and their patients from being infected and infecting others. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated in March this year that to respond to the COVID-19 crisis, 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6million googles would be required each month. And that’s just within healthcare settings.

Since WHO published its guidance on “rational and appropriate use of PPE in healthcare settings, and the effective management of supply chains”, the science has updated to suggest the wearing of masks can be beneficial in reducing the spread of coronavirus.

Now that many countries are now encouraging or mandating the wearing of masks in enclosed public spaces, environmental groups are warning of the potential waste resulting in the uptake of single-use PPE amongst the general public.

Speaking to The Independent, Amanda Keetley, founder of Less Plastic, advised against purchasing single-use masks and look for reusable alternatives instead.

“Anything that’s been specifically created to be used just once and then thrown away, will either end up in landfill, or escape into nature as our waste infrastructure can’t cope with the volumes we produce. Unless you’re in a medical situation, the best option is to get a reusable face mask that can be worn and washed again and again.” – Amanda Keetley, Founder of Less Plastic, speaking to The Independent.

Are reusable masks effective in the prevention of coronavirus?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they are. On its website, the CDC says: “Masks are most likely to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when they are widely used by people in public settings. Simple masks can be made at home and may help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The CDC’s website helpfully includes directions on how to make your own mask at home and advises that surgical masks or N95 respirators are critical supplies, which should be reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders.

How to reduce your consumption of plastic.

If like 48% of Britons surveyed by BRITA UK, the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has made you more conscious about making sustainable choices day-to-day, you’re in the right place! That’s exactly why Earth Collective exists – to be your daily guide to sustainable living. Here are some of our top tips for reducing plastic consumption:

  1. Take a reusable water bottle with you, everywhere. If Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick’s experience with a water sommelier (yes, that’s a real thing) in the Netflix show ‘Down to Earth’ didn’t convince you of the power of natural water, we don’t know what will. Refill, refill and refill again!
  2. Arm yourself with a reusable coffee cup. Many coffee shops are making provisions to accept reusable cups hands free, and still giving you a discount for bringing your own. We all know the coffee tastes better in a reusable cup, find one you love and take it everywhere with you.
  3. Remember your reusable shopping bags when you’re out and about. Is there anything more satisfying than replying “no thanks, I brought my own” when the person behind the checkout asks if you’d like a bag for your shopping?
  4. Switch to a bamboo or corn starch toothbrush. If you follow your dentist’s guidelines of changing your toothbrush every three months, you’re looking at throwing away about 300 of these bristly plastic fellas in your lifetime. Bamboo or corn starch toothbrushes that can be recycled or composted are a much better choice for the planet.
  5. Invest in reusable wax wraps. The turning point product for food storage and coverings, reusable wax wraps are the eco-friendly (and stylish) alternative to tinfoil, cling-wrap and single-use food bags. They will jazz up your fridge and you can even make your own.
  6. Try reusable sanitary pads, menstrual cups or period underwearAnother game-changer. And we’ve penned a nifty article on everything you need to know about menstrual cups that you were too afraid to ask right here.
  7. Try shampoo and soap bars. Once you find a shampoo bar that works for you, you’ll use it for the rest of your life. And that’s good for your hair, your body, your bank balance AND the planet.

Does this story resonate with you? Have your habits changed during or after lockdown? Leave a comment and let us know!

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Charli Ferrand

Charli wrote her first novel at the tender age of 9, then dabbled in the idea of becoming a professional ballerina for a few years, before returning to her love of writing, acquiring a BA (Hons) in Journalism, Film & Broadcast from Cardiff University in the UK. A three-month holiday in Australia turned into a 11 year residency, during which Charli cemented her career in PR & Marketing Communications working with some of the biggest brands in the world. She also gained her citizenship, discovered her passion for sustainability and eventually ended up coming full circle, combining her professional skills with her love of the planet and oceans into her role as Editor-in-Chief of Earth Collective. A trained journalist, experienced communications professional and qualified Mental Health First Aider, Charli has her finger on the pulse of the latest political and environmental developments around the world. You can find her writing about current affairs, political activism and mental health.

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