In this article we would like to start a conversation about a shallow covered consequence of the pandemic: the substantial increase in waste all around the world.
Waste is a big problem and it does not seem to be getting any better. Waste affects life on land, life on water, sanitation and the well-being of the most at-risk population. That’s the reason a lot of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) are closely tied to the tracking, innovating and management of what we consume in our day-to-day lives.
Even though Ocean Bottle concentrates most of its attention to plastic and the effect it is having in our oceans, we would like to take a deeper view at the current increase in waste, understanding a holistic approach needs to be put forward in order to remedy the situation.
Hopefully at the end of the article you will be able to understand more about the problem, how the new pandemic changes the game and most importantly, how you can be part of the solution.
Waste Issues (Pre-COVID)
I don’t want to go at length on the global waste issues we have but wanted to give you a few key figures. This will give a baseline for which the world was operating before the pandemic took over.
The World Bank stated that without urgent action, global waste will increase by 70% by 2050 (1). Their most recent study finds that humans generate around 2.1 billion tonnes of waste. Plastic is one of the biggest problems as it represents almost 13% of all waste and it needs to be managed with strict guidelines, as it affects waterways and ecosystems for hundreds of years.
The United States is the biggest generator of waste per capita (2), with each citizen producing an average of 808 kilograms per year, while China is the biggest waste contributor with 15% of global waste (3) (US is at 11%, although it has less than 4 times China’s population).
Around 33% of the world’s waste is mismanaged globally, it is either being openly dumped or burned.(4) China used to be the largest important of waste plastics, accounting for more than 56% of the market.(5) Due to their local environmental considerations, in 2017, the government of China banned import of several types of waste, including plastic, leaving waste exporters (like the US) in unwarranted positions to find alternatives.
Landfills are not an option. Decomposing garbage produces a greenhouse gas called methane that is 25 times more potent than CO2 in contributing to climate change.(6)
Most interestingly, I was playing around with the OECD global waste statistics and noticed some alarming numbers.(7) I initially fell for the average fallacy as looking at the year over year numbers, increases of waste per country ranged from a 1%-5%. The shocking data came when you looked at how much the total increased over several years. Here are just a few examples:
Total Waste Increase (%)
Year Range for Increase
Remember that with waste, unfortunately there is no way to go but up.
A few final facts to have in mind:
- Global deaths by air pollution: 8.9 Million/Year
- Hazardous waste produces: 400 Million tonnes/Year
- Plastic being dumped in our ocean: 13 million tonnes/year
- Pollution of groundwater: 280 billion tons/year
Annual solid waste generated per capita (kg/capita/day)
Source: World Bank
(New) Waste Issues (Post-COVID)
New waste and management challenges
An increasing number of waste and waste management challenges not only comes from the need of personal protective equipment (PPE), but also from the consumer pattern shift that the world is experiencing at the moment. As we adjust to the new limitations that the pandemic has forced upon us, we must also understand the unexpected consequences and our personal involvement with them.
Recommendation is for people with suspected virus infection and mild symptoms get quarantined at home. But is there a widely known procedure for how these infected people treat their waste? Even if it’s only suspected? Tip: You must put contaminated waste items such as tissues or wet wipes into a separate tied or sealed bag before putting that bag into the general household waste bag or bin.(9)
Waste management facilities require their staff to be up to the challenge of increased volume, but they also need to go about their work in a safe environment. According to the World Health Organization, people handling health care waste in particular should wear appropriate gear, including boots, aprons, long-sleeved gowns, thick gloves, masks, and goggles or face shields.(10) As national entities put themselves up to the task, we must start planning for the long-term solutions on the issue.
We must also be aware that a lot of the personal protective equipment, the masks and gloves and other medical equipment, is plastic, and much of it is being thrown carelessly away. When PPE gets discarded in public areas, it ends up clogging sidewalk drains and washing into waterways. Not to mention that new research from the National Institute of Health (NIH) has found that the virus can live up to 24 hours on cardboard and up to 2-3 days on plastic and stainless steel.
Here are other examples of the amount of new waste that is being generated:
- Hospitals generated six times as much medical waste at the peak of the outbreak as they did before the crisis began. This lead to come cities in China even constructing new specialized waste treatment plants.(11) With restaurants being closed, we are eating much more at home. This leads to more grocery shopping, that normally means you have much more packaging waste. People are shifting from fresh vegetables to canned or bagged options as farmer’s markets continue to be shut down.
- Brand like Starbucks and McDonalds, have announced suspension of bring-your-own containers and going back to single-use.(12)
- As online shopping (and grocery shopping) continues to grow month by month by double digits (13), we must recognise the impact this is having on waste. Not only are seeing an abhorrent amount of additional packaging material, but some of it (like the inflatable plastic bags) is not even recyclable.
- Some supply chains are suffering due to regulations or demand shifts. We’ve heard of beer being dumped and food going to waste even as people are going hungry.
Shift in policies
Take for example Vancouver, who recently adopted a zero-waste policy. Due to the pandemic, it’s now asking for donations of take-out containers and bottled water. The city says it needs the items to tackle hunger and thirst, which of course should be a priority, but can’t we at parallel start also thinking of strategies on how to mitigate this new waste?
Some cities in the US have confirmed that as early as March, residential trash tonnage had increased more than 30%.(14) On a personal note, l live in a country that has one of the best recycling cultures in the world, and I’m seeing trash cans flooded with garbage in every corner. The lids just won’t close as people are consuming so much more in their households.
In Kenya, wearing masks is mandatory as of April 15, but as the secretary general for the United Green Movement, Hamisa Zaja, explained: “Government and non-governmental organisations have been sensitising the public on importance of using PPE, they are not telling us how and when to dispose of them." This is not only an issue in Kenya, but across the world.(15)
More troublingly, the plastic industry is seizing an opportunity during this pandemic and has started campaigning to weaken the hard-fought measures that are already in place against plastic pollution. The Plastics Industry Association sent to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services requesting a public statement from the department endorsing the idea that single-use plastics are the safest choice amid the pandemic.(16) Years of hard fought battles could be washed away on a single day, taking advantage that our attention is focused elsewhere.
Here are some examples how this is unfolding in the US: Boston reinstated plastic bag use. Massachusetts followed suit with more drastic measures: banning reusable bags and preempting local bag bans across the entire state. Maine has delayed its planned ban. Connecticut lifted a 10-cent fee on plastic bags and Hawaii county has also suspended its own plastic bag ban.(17)
The Ocean Conservancy is aware this is happening and is trying it’s best to fight back. They understand that if the policies being to change, it would increase ocean plastic pollution immediately and push back the limited results we have against single-use plastic.(18)
Solution – Big and Small
Big - Sustainability is more important than ever. COVID has unfortunately changed business priorities in unimaginable ways, but it’s important to not see sustainability as an obstacle of growth. If done well, sustainable practices should help prepare businesses for the future, and allow them to utilize their resources in more efficient ways. It’s time to stop “greenwashing” with ineffective solutions and join the no-bullshit sustainability initiative. In the last four years, firms leading action on climate change have financially outperformed the global benchmark by six percent. Operational improvements tied to this goal can lead to cost reductions and reduce dependency on natural resources.
If you own a business, lead an organization, have a voice as a stakeholder or have some involvement in government, it is time to open the door, start talking and begin addressing the problem together. Addressing externalities that any company or person faces requires collaboration. In many cases, this means that a polluter must join forces with those impacted by pollution to identify a way to make everyone better off.
With oil reaching new pricing lows all over the world, supply of plastic will become a priority for these massive petrochemical companies that need to expand to other markets. Plastic will continue to be cheaper than any other alternative, so it’s up to other big organizations to avoid falling into low-cost temptation and look for other options to attract consumers.
Small - Aim for Zero-waste, settle for cutting waste, recycling, looking for unpackaged goods and buying fresh & local. Zero-waste is an ideal way to live if you want to take serious action, but depending on where you live, this is much easier to say than to actually do. Here are the five principles of zero-waste from experts by order of importance (19) (if it’s impossible to follow all of them, just starting with some of them is important):
- Refuse - refuse to buy things with lots of packaging
- Reduce - don’t buy things you don’t really need
- Reuse - repurpose worn out items, shop for used goods, and purchase reusable products like steel water bottles
- Compost - up to 80 percent of waste by weight is organic. But this rarely decomposes in landfills
- Recycle – It still takes some energy and resources to recycle, but it’s better than sending stuff to the landfill or allowing it to become litter
So next time, use your reusable bottle, shop local produce that does not use plastic, think twice about that non-essential purchase, patch-up those jeans instead of buying new ones, and see for recycling options where you live.
Change and transformation starts with individuals taking responsibilities. With people who do the best they can, in the best way they can, no matter how small or insignificant they may feel, or their actions may seem.
This new revolution was forced upon us, we need to take it as it is and make the most out of the circumstances. Life can go back to normal, but who would want that to happen, we need life to become better. This needs to help us see how delicate and valuable our reality is and how we need to be conscious enough to make it matter.
Message in a bottle brought to you by Co-Founder Mauricio