What Happens when a Global Pandemic Interrupts Sustainability Routines

WWF October 22, 2020 0

By Marisa Zocco, WWF Panda Ambassador

In this special five-part sustainability series by WWF Panda Ambassador Marisa Zocco, zero-wasters spread facts, hope and 19 practical ways to reduce waste amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

For decades, the eco-conscious have found ways to resourcefully adapt within a world set to a default of disposable convenience.

Whether using cloth face pads, safety razors, and bamboo toothbrushes in the restroom at home; toting a personal cup or container for to-go coffees and restaurant leftovers; or bringing cloth or recycled bags to the grocer; conservationists have found ways to reduce personal and corporate waste through reusing, recycling, and refusing to consume products in packaging that cannot be composted or recycled.

But take away the ability to take home leftovers and to-go beverages in our personal containers, or throw in online grocery shopping where additional packaging becomes a problem and shipping contributes to emissions, and some might be thrown for a loop.

If “What now?” is the question, the answer might be found in successful models implemented in the recent past.

Waste that could not be diverted on Nat Hab’s Zero Waste Adventure fit into a single mason jar. Photo © Ali Wunderman

In July of 2019, Natural Habitat Adventures (Nat Hab) and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) successfully hosted the world’s first zero-waste adventure tour of Yellowstone National Park. Participants ranged from self-proclaimed seasoned veterans of the lesser waste lifestyle to the zero-waste newbie looking to learn.

Over seven days, travelers learned about waste and how to better mitigate their personal production of it in an effort to produce less than a quart-sized mason jar’s worth of collective group waste defined as anything that could not be reused, recycled, or composted. They succeeded.

WWF caught up with Nat Hab’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel, Court Whelan; WWF Head of Plastic Waste and Business, Erin Simon; and multiple zero-waste adventure tour participants to bring even the newest of zero-waste practitioners some hope and inspiration during this historic time when reducing our waste can at times feel overwhelming.

Holding the waste of the world on our shoulders

If it was a mental and emotional challenge pre-coronavirus to commit to a lesser waste lifestyle in a world with a trash problem that is clearly contributing to the rapid decline of our climate and ecosystems, the strain has almost certainly increased.

In the United States, typical food waste amounts to 63 million tons each year. That’s 40 percent of the country’s annual food supply. Since the beginning of the pandemic, however, household food waste alone has increased by 30 percent, which some studies have shown is a partial redistribution of that waste from restaurants into the home.

But even with that redistribution, the collapse of the food and beverage industry, including restaurants, school and corporate cafeterias, as well as farmers markets has meant an increase in food entering the waste stream.

Whether home or industry, the result remains the same: Wasted food produces landfill gases, which include methane gas and carbon dioxide (CO2) that contribute to global warming. Of the two, methane is particularly damaging; it is 28 to 36 times more effective in trapping heat in our atmosphere than CO2. Sixty percent of the methane in our atmosphere—which even before the pandemic was responsible for about 20 percent of the warming of the planet—is directly caused by humans.

The amount of worldwide plastic waste has also increased. Though the picture of our single-use plastics already looked grim (less than 10 percent of the plastic ever produced is estimated to have been recycled), it’s only expected to worsen as a result of COVID-19. Single-use plastics waste is forecasted to increase by 30 percent globally this year as a direct result of the pandemic’s increased use of disposable medical masks and gloves, food and beverage take-away containers, travel-sized hand sanitizers, and more.

COVID-19 resulted in an estimated global use of 129 billion medical face masks and 65 billion gloves every month, and according to Scientific American, if we took the masks already manufactured, and those projected to be produced, we would be able to cover the entire landmass of Switzerland. All that plastic waste has to go somewhere, and likely, a portion of it will end up in our oceans.

On a standard year, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the world’s oceans, with models projecting that by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the ocean than fish. This year, that waste is almost certain to increase.

It may seem discouraging, but taking a step backward doesn’t mean failure. In fact, it can lead to greater success.

No need to curbside your enthusiasm

When it comes to venturing into a lesser or zero-waste lifestyle, finding little successes every day is key.

“Sometimes it feels like two steps forward and one step back but that’s still a net step forward,” said Court Whelan, Nat Hab’s Director of Sustainability and Conservation Travel.  “We’re still further on this path than if we hadn’t started on it all.”

Nat Hab is the world’s first 100 percent carbon-neutral travel company and is the exclusive conservation travel partner of WWF. The company is dedicated to ethical, eco-conscious nature travel in the hopes of exposing travelers to the importance of wildlife and nature conservation.

Whelan pressed the importance of taking leaps toward greater sustainability, whether personal or corporate, whenever we can. That’s why the company took the leap and hosted the world’s first zero waste adventure tour in July of 2019.

Nat Hab guests celebrate a successful Zero Waste Adventure. Photo © Court Whelan

“When times are good and you have the ability to do these moonshot ideas, you’ve got to take them. You never know when something will emerge to force that step back.”

WWF’s Head of Plastic Waste and Business, Erin Simon, also emphasized the importance of small steps.

“That was the great thing about the straw movement,” Simon said. “We understood a direct connection to an item we use regularly and the impact it could have on environment. It changed our behavior and made us more thoughtful about it.”

Though straws account for less than 1 percent of the total waste issue around the world, the gesture of refusal is what counts.

In taking that tiny step as consumers, we come to feel empowered and encouraged; perhaps we become staunch advocates for lesser or zero-waste practices on increasingly large scales.

What starts with refusing a straw, might morph into writing letters to corporations or to our local legislators. But more importantly, we become regular practitioners of dispersing to others the information we have about the larger waste issue at hand—a small step with big impact.

Sustainability is by no means exclusively about taking those big leaps or making monumental change.

Think outside of the (recycled) box

Among Nat Hab’s zero-waste adventurers, whether expert, intermediate, or beginner, the most prominent theme when questioned about how they’ve been keeping up with a zero-waste lifestyle during a global pandemic was creativity.

While ingenuity is nothing new to the environmentalist, it has perhaps never been more important.

If we use a sense of play when experimenting with waste production, it becomes a craft that we aim to perfect versus a chore that we feel tasked to do and often neglect.

The possibilities are truly endless.

Check back next week for the first set of tips to help you reduce waste during COVID-19. 

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