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The Plastic Pandemic: How COVID-19 Increased Disposable Product Use

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

By Carol Queiroz

Throughout the months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen both positive and negative effects on the climate. With factories shut down as quarantine began, air pollution dropped drastically improving air quality in many regions, however, the demand for single-use products has also risen, creating more pollution in our oceans and piling up on our landfills. Here's a quick look at the rise of disposable products during the pandemic.

Disposable Masks

Starting off with a fairly obvious one, we have surgical masks. Wearing masks has been widely enforced as a way to stop the spread of the virus. You can barely go anywhere without one. And while plastic-based, one-use masks are effective in preventing the spread of COVID and have been approved by the CDC, many of them often end up in the ocean and streams where they can be eaten by aquatic animals mistaking them for jellyfish. Or, because people don’t cut the straps off when throwing out their masks, straps can attach themselves onto the necks of marine life, which can hurt them. Surgical masks are also made up of polymeric materials causing micro-plastic pollution that can circle back to the water we drink or remain in the ocean/streams. Because of their long after-lives, after they are thrown out, it can take centuries to fully decompose in nature. The availability of single-use masks are through the roof, and you can get packs of them delivered to your door. They have been the go-to for millions of people, but maybe we need to start re-thinking that. Reusable cotton masks have been all over the market with prices ranging from about 10-25 dollars. They can be washed, reused and help the planet a little more. If you’re looking to buy some, here are some black owned businesses that sell reusable masks.


Before the pandemic hit, we had seen restaurants and businesses making strong efforts to lower the usage of plastic materials, even starting to ban plastic bags and straws. It was looking good as more and more establishments moved to using paper or other reusable items as a replacement. But after a long lockdown where these restaurants were shut down, they’ve opened back up with outdoor seating, more ventilation and plexiglass. And while that’s great news economically (and for people who need work), the number of disposable products has started to rise once more. This includes plastic containers, bags and utensils in attempts to make going out to eat more COVID friendly. Plus, with more people ordering takeout/food delivery services, the need for plastic bags especially has been increased. According to an article from CNBC, before quarantine, a restaurant chain called Just Salads had started an initiative to use reusable bowls for their salads. This helped save an estimated 75,000 pounds of plastic every year. But when the pandemic reached them, the program was stopped, going back to using disposable packaging. It’s been a difficult year for restaurants, but we can’t ignore the spike in plastic products many have gone back to using. At this current rate, plastic usage is expected to spike to 40% in the next decade.


The school year has started back up again, and like some restaurants, some schools are moving towards reopening again. But with that, of course, there are going to have to be a few changes made to try and stay as safe as possible. I’ve been going back to school to learn, and instead of kids running to the dining hall after classes, standing in a close lunch line with their friends, and everyone using the same pair of tongs to get their food we now have a completely new lunch system. Spoiler alert: it involves more plastic, as I’m sure many other schools' new lunch systems do. But from a students first hand example, my school in particular has a few sandwich options, wrapped up in plastic wrap, plastic water bottles, plastic chip bags and more depending on the day. And we can take our masks off in the dining hall when we sit to eat because the tables are surrounded by plexiglass so we can sit with our friends. Plexiglass, also called acrylic sheets, is made of acrylic plastics, and not only are they environmentally damaging to produce, but they also are not biodegradable. From manufacturing to disposal, plexiglass has an overall negative impact on the environment. And again, it’s been difficult for people to worry about COVID/safety and plastic pollution at the same time. Schools are trying their best, but they are changes we can’t ignore and changes we can’t get used to.

We can’t forget the movements started before the pandemic to be determined to ban/slow down our plastic use. It may not seem like a big deal, just one plastic bag at the grocery store won’t hurt right? But each extra plastic item discarded over and over my millions of people will add up and make a difference. And there are little ways that you and the people around you can cut your plastic use. Some include:

  • Get a reusable mask! They are super comfortable and easy to wash.

  • Get back into the habit of using your own reusable water bottle instead of plastic ones.

  • When going to the grocery store, bring your own bag.

  • Try cutting products with unnecessary amounts of packaging out as much as you can.

  • If you pack lunch, pack it in a reusable bag and containers.

Written by writer Carol Queiroz

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