How COVID has changed our relationship with waste

Aside from being a traumatic time for all, COVID-19 has changed the trajectory of the world. For one, before the pandemic, it had finally seemed possible to imagine a future without plastic. But, with a global pandemic on our hands, there’s been a need for rigid sanitation and some rapid adaptations to our daily life. With this, our plastic usage has been creeping back up.

UK delayed its ban on plastic straws and many states in the US delayed their ban on plastic bags. Crucially, masks, gloves and other PPE equipment have been deemed necessary for all, and the fear of an unknown virus has understandably seen the return of disposable wipes, liquid soaps and single-use food and drink items.

Why the COVID lockdown has consumers thinking about sustainability

What many aren’t noting however, is how COVID and the lockdown are also changing our relationship with waste. While there’s been panic buying and supply shortages – as well as people being more cautious about pollution and the like – people have also been finding innovative ways to work with what they have. Building on their research on plastic biodegration, packaging retailer RAJA looked into the benefits of three sustainable items that have further came to light during this time.

Parents are turning to reusable alternatives

  • Reusable nappy sales have soared during lockdown, with one UK company seeing a 300% rise.
  • The Office for National Statistics reports disposable nappies seeing fluctuating prices due to the coronavirus crisis, with prices creeping up by 0.3%.

If you’re a parent that faced a moment of anxiety on finding there were no nappies left on the supermarket shelf, you may have been forced to try reusable nappies instead. This was probably why companies such as Frugi has seen a 300 percent spike in demand – and new customers seem there to stay.

Let’s take a look why. According to parenting site First Cry, 320 disposable diapers are used in the first month alone, with a further 2640 in the following 11 months, amounting to 2960 in the first year. In fact, according to recycling charity Wrap, one baby can use between 4,000-6000 by the time they are potty trained. If the average price of a nappy within the UK is approximately 0.15p (Right Price), then this will cost parents anything from £600-900 per child, with the nappies eventually adding to the estimated three billion nappies thrown away every year in the UK (Wrap). One nappy takes 500 years to decompose.

This is in comparison to reusable ‘cloth’ nappies. Babies are likely to use only 20 to 30 in their lifetime – a shocking 5,700 difference from disposables. Of course, this sustainable alternative comes at a price, combining the labour time and carbon emissions – though you can control this through how you wash. The initial price of reusable nappies is also more expensive, at approximately £17.99 per pack.

Overall, however, this still comes out at a cheaper price of around £360-540. According to the UK Environment Agency in their latest published ‘Life Cycle Analysis’ report, cloth nappies are up to 40% better for the environment.

The reusable mask market is flourishing

  • Soon there could be ‘more masks than jellyfish’ in the ocean, but the reusable mask market is set to multiply by 2.1X through 2030
  • University College London study finds that if everyone in the UK wore a disposable mask everyday for a year, we’d have 66,000 metric tons of plastic waste, plus 57,000 metric tons of extra packaging

Of course, if without the global pandemic, there would likely have been much smaller demand for masks. However, masks are now a part of daily life in many countries around the world– and it may become the new normal for many more of us. In fact, the UN trade body, UNCTAD estimated that global sales totalled approximately £126 billion (US $166 billion) this year, up from £606 million (US $800 million) in 2019. Some of this spend is likely due to the World Health Organisation’s advice that disposable masks are only designed to be used once.

According to a University College London study however, if everyone in the UK wore a new disposable mask every day for a year, it would result in 66,000 metric tons of plastic waste, plus 57,000 metric tons of packaging. And, according to UN News, around 75% of these used masks will end up in landfill or floating in the sea. Add to that the fact they turn into microplasticsingested by fish and other sea animals – as well as taking 450 years to degrade – it becomes clear that one catastrophe could well be causing another.

With the UK government now teaching people to make their own face coverings at home, and health experts calling for reusable PPE to protect people and the planet, it seems that the effectiveness of reusable alternatives is no longer in doubt. While reusable face coverings need to be washed every day, they can be reused countless times before needing to be disposed of. There’s little research so far on how long a reusable mask is effective, but popular retailers like Pacamask suggest theirs kills 99% of bacteria for up to 50 washes, which could give a ballpark figure.

Are we shifting towards sustainable sanitary products?

  • With many consumers noting shortages due to other consumers’ stockpiling, eco-friendly and long-lasting sanitary products are becoming evermore appealing
  • The Mayor of London’s website states that the UK alone generates 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste due to disposable products every year – most of which ends up in landfill

The coronavirus outbreak has caused many people to panic-buy sanitary products, leaving those that can’t afford to stockpile with little options. Yet it’s known that in the UK alone, we generate 200,000 tonnes of menstrual waste every year through disposable products, most of it winding up in landfills. This is because tampons come wrapped in plastic, with plastic applicators, and plastic strings – many even harbouring a plastic absorbent material. For pads, it is much the same. None of this is recyclable. In developed countries, the average consumer uses about 240 tampons each year, or around 11,000-16,000 in their lifetime. Crucially, these products can take up to 500 years to decompose, and chemicals such as dioxin, chlorine and rayon can get soaked up and released as pollution into water and air.

Though there’s not yet data regarding the rise of eco-sanitary products during the pandemic, their benefits are being more popularly plugged into everyday conversation. Products like ImseVimse (cloth menstrual pads), have a ten-year warranty, while Mooncup (silicone cups for menstruating), suggest that some customers can get 10 years’ use out of one product. If so, this would equate to just 1 product for every 2,400 disposables! According to Supriya Garikipati writing for the Independent, menstrual cups are estimated to have 1.5 percent of the environmental impact of disposables, at 10% of the cost. A range of reliable and sustainable sanitary products have been on the scene long before COVID, but perhaps now is when change will come for good.

  • Reusable nappy sales soar during lockdown, with one company seeing 300% rise
  • Reusable mask market is set to multiply by 2.1X through 2030
  • Swapping to one sustainable sanitary product could save approximately 2,400 disposables

Product:

Time to decompose

Time of usability

Alternative product

Time of usability

Disposable nappies

500 years

2-4 hours approx.

Cloth nappies

2-3 years

Disposable face masks

450 years

1 day

Reusable face coverings

50 days approx.

Disposable tampons

500 years

8 hours approx.

Sustainable sanitary products

10 years (dependant on type)

         

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