Plastic waste surges as coronavirus prompts restaurants to use more disposable packaging

Key Points
  • Before the start of the coronavirus outbreak, cities and states were making some progress on banning plastic bags, shifting from singe-use plastic to paper products and encouraging shoppers to bring reusable bags.
  • But now health concerns over Covid-19 have reversed that progress. Some cities have rolled back the bans on plastic bags and retailers are stopping customers from using reusable bags.
  • "The environmental fallout is definitely real," said Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer of Just Salad, a popular chain that shifted away from reusable bowls once the pandemic hit. 
A woman wearing a face mask and a plastic bag pulls a cart loaded with bags of recyclables through the streets of Lower Manhattan during the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (which causes COVID-19) on April 16, 2020 in New York City.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

As the country re-opens after months of lockdowns, consumers and restaurants have become more dependent on single-use plastic bags, containers and utensils due to health concerns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the start of the outbreak, cities and states were making some progress on banning plastic bags, shifting away from single-use plastic — which ends up sitting in the ocean — to paper or reusable products.

But now, cities and states have delayed or rolled back those bans on plastic bags in fear that reusable products will spread disease. Many retailers are banning customers from bringing reusable bags. And municipalities are scaling back recycling operations due to health concerns. 

The surge in single-use plastic is a major blow to the fight against plastic pollution, which is projected to increase by 40% in the next decade, according to a report from the World Wildlife Fund. 

The problem is especially apparent in the restaurant industry and its increased reliance on food delivery services. Many restaurants, even those that were curbing plastic waste prior to the pandemic, are not limiting the amount of plastic involved in takeout orders. 

For instance, popular chain Just Salad was producing reusable bowls that saved more than 75,000 pounds of plastic a year. When the pandemic hit the chain, the company immediately halted the program, shuttered restaurants and pivoted to delivery and pickup — both of which meant using only disposable packaging.

"The environmental fallout is definitely real," said Sandra Noonan, Just Salad's chief sustainability officer.

Employees of the Sushi Taro sushi restaurant assist with carry out orders on May 2, 2020 in Washington, DC.
Sarah Silbiger | Getty Images

The shift by the salad chain is similar to that of many popular restaurants when the pandemic hit, including Starbucks and Dunkin', which stopped letting customers use reusable mugs.

Green Restaurant Association CEO Michael Oshman said that it's too early to predict how much more waste has been generated due to the pandemic.

But most local economies don't have the infrastructure in place for reusable or compostable takeout packaging. And environmentalists warn the pandemic threatens to scare consumers away from reusable products just as progress was being made.

"The plastic industry seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to try to convince people that single use plastic is necessary to keep us safe, and that reusables are dirty and dangerous," said John Hocevar, ocean campaign director at Greenpeace. "The fact that neither of these things is supported by the best available science was irrelevant." 

"Exploitation of Covid-19 fears ultimately made people less safe, distracting attention from the need to focus on the risk of airborne transmission and critical measures like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing," he added. 

Covid-19 has caused a rise in single-use plastics: Environmental lawyer
Covid-19 has caused a rise in single-use plastics: Environmental lawyer

A major challenge will be reinstating zero waste policies when the pandemic finally subsides, though there is opportunity for delivery services to establish themselves as zero waste options and develop returnable or reusable systems. 

But one fix could be relatively easy for restaurants to adopt: asking customers to opt in if they want plastic utensils with their pickup or delivery orders, which typically include a slew of single-use plastic products. 

Just Salad implemented the change to its own online-ordering platform around the start of lockdowns and said it saved them money and reduced utensil use on those orders by 88%. The chain's sustainability officer is talking with third-party delivery services to make the shift universal.

A customer wearing a protective mask receives a takeaway meal from a restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic on May 20, 2020 in the Little Tokyo neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.
Michael Tullberg | Getty Images

While Oshman urges restaurants to try to find better solutions than single-use plastics — like using disposable packaging made with high post-consumer waste — he also said that operators can look to make changes elsewhere to mitigate the environmental cost of business.

"There's a lot of things that are still in your control still. For example, what kind of cleaners are you using to disinfect everything?" he said.

Oshman also suggested generating a QR code so customers can read the menus on their smartphones rather than disposable menus. And restaurateurs can recycle the disposable masks and gloves shed by their employees through Terracycle, a New Jersey-based recycler that collects non-recyclable waste and turns it into raw materials for manufacturers. 

"The delays and reversals in moving away from single use plastics are unfortunate and counterproductive, but they will be very short lived," Hocevar said.

"As our understanding of the impacts of plastic on the health of our planet and our communities continues to grow, it is increasingly clear that we need to quickly move away from single-use plastics," he added. 

We need to invest in future-proofing our supply chains: Circulate Capital
We need to invest in future-proofing our supply chains: Circulate Capital