Sustainable Living

7 Easy Ways To Not Totally Abandon the Environment Right now, Despite COVID-19 Concerns

Erin Bunch

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Graphic: W+G Creative; Photo: Getty Images/Westend61

Every time you leave your house right now, in the middle of the pandemic, there are a countless details to consider and precautions to take: face masks, hand sanitizer, wipes, gloves, shields, etc. And if your sustainability efforts during COVID-19 have landed on the back burner because you just don’t have the mental bandwidth to consider how your pandemic-specific consumption habits may be impacting the environment, it makes sense. The overwhelming existential threat is omnipresent, and safety (and sanity) is the priority.

With that said, the climate crisis poses an even more severe existential threat. If we don’t reduce carbon emissions to zero within a decade, millions are projected to die due to famine, heat, disease, displacement, and other consequences of environmental abuse by humans. In other words, the reality we’re building toward looks far worse than the one we’re currently living through—even in the most challenging year in generations. So even though the pandemic’s forcing us to resort back to single-use items (e.g., takeout containers, grocery bags, cleansing wipes, etc.) that pollute the environment, we can’t actually afford to ignore the climate crisis.

Fortunately, sustainability during COVID-19 is possible, thanks to certain tips and strategies—some of which are low-lift—you can implement. In fact, many of them fit in fairly easily with the new parameters of what it means to live a safe and healthy life right now. Below, experts offer seven ways to be safely mindful of environmental concerns through the trying times at hand.

7 easy ways to protect sustainability efforts, even during COVID-19

1. Be sustainable with your PPE

This year, disposable face masks and gloves essentially became the new plastic water bottle, in that they’ve become ubiquitous litter. Given that they’re necessary, life-saving items, though, the answer is not to abstain from using them. (In fact, please, please utilize them—I beg of you!) Rather, focus on adjusting how you use them. When possible to do so safely, implement the following four sustainable tips:

  1. Recycle (or, at least don’t litter). For starters, make sure to not throw them out of your car window, or whatever it is that’s leading to the litter. While you can’t recycle these items through regular recycling, you can, at the very least, make the effort to toss them in the trash. And if you’re able to make an investment, you can recycle them. TerraCycle sells recycling boxes specifically for protective gear ($148) and for plastic gloves ($136). Once you’ve filled the box with your discarded items, you simply ship it back to TerraCycle to handle the recycling.
  2. Wash and reuse cloth masks. Depending on your situation, you might be able to safely cut back on protective disposables by investing in a few cloth masks you can wash and reuse daily. Lindsay McCormick, founder of plastic-free toothpaste brand Bite, recommends paying attention to the sourcing of any reusable masks you buy and prioritizing local makers who use scrap fabric. “It’s like two-in-one,” she says. “You get to support a small business and you’re using something that’s been repurposed that you can continue repurposing.” DIY’ing your own works, too.
  3. Avoid single-use cleaning wipes. McCormick also recommends skipping disposable bleach or antibacterial wipes in favor of the good old rag-and-spray-cleaner combo. Though, obviously, this should only be done when safe to do so (like, inside your home, when you’re not interacting with other people, and other people are not interacting with your personal surfaces). “There’s plastic in those wipes, and so they end up being really bad for the environment,” she says. “It’s just as easy to wipe down groceries [for example] by spraying them with isopropyl alcohol, which you can get in a big gallon [jug] that you can then recycle.”
  4. Try reusable gloves (if it’s safe for you to do so). Similarly, she recommends ditching disposable plastic gloves in favor of thicker rubber gloves you can also clean with alcohol after using them to, say, grocery shop, ultimately saving you money while helping to reduce waste.

2. Don’t give up on sustainable grocery shopping

Some shops are no longer allowing customers to bring in reusable bags, which, if we’re being honest, was the one thing many did to help the planet consistently. In these scenarios, both McCormick and Jackie Nunez, program manager for the Plastic Pollution Coalition and founder of public education platform The Last Plastic Straw, say they try to cart groceries un-bagged to their cars and then bag them in reusables brought from home. Obviously, this scenario will not work for all (like, if you do not have a car), but if possible for you, it’s a relatively low-lift way to reduce waste.

McCormick notes that in many regions, you can still shop at farmers’ markets, too, where your own bags may be allowed and generally, single-use waste is less prevalent. Nunez recommends supporting imperfect produce purveyors like Imperfect Foods to reduce food waste, too.

3. When shopping online, do so with mindful intention

Even the most environmentally conscientious among us may be shopping online more right now out of necessity. To ensure you’re not hurting the environment more than you need to with this practice, McCormick suggests you always opt for regular delivery speed when possible. Ordering rush delivery, she says, ends up causing more environmental harm because it doesn’t allow for items to be grouped for delivery in the most efficient manner. If you’re ordering many items from a single source, you can also add non-essential items to your cart and place one larger order later, which can reduce the number of delivery trips made to your home and the number of boxes utilized in the packaging of your items.

4. Invest in plastic-free options when possible

Plastic Free July is over, but that doesn’t mean you should cease trying to reduce the amount of single-use plastic you generate. “Plastic is a gross polluter in every stage of its existence,” says Nunez. And while the pandemic is making avoiding it more difficult in some arenas—for instance, the spike in takeout orders and all the plastic that entails—certain low-cost items can help lighten your environmental load.

“The first thing to do is audit what you’re doing that’s unsustainable and that you can easily fix,” says McCormick. Bite, for example, makes a plastic-free alternative to toothpaste packaged in plastic tubes, which the company ships sustainably on subscription, so you can be eco-friendly on autopilot. Blueland sells cleaning supplies in tablet form, eliminating the need for single-use plastic bottles. And Misfit Market has ditched the plastic produce bag in favor of a compostable version. These are just a few of many, many examples—shop 14 other products to jump-start your low-lift effort to reduce plastic waste now.

5. DIY whatever you can

Depending on where you are in your 2020 journey (the spectrum runs from tears to banana bread to revolution), you may find yourself baking up a storm these days. This is a win in that it eliminates the need for individually-packaged snacks. Some people are also starting their own herb gardens or, pending space and ability to keep plants alive, full-fledged vegetable patches. Both options are more sustainable than grocery shopping. You can also make your own hummus, almond milk, and other frequently purchased, plastic-packaged items to reduce your footprint.

6. Compost, too

Composting can really help alleviate landfill load, specifically the food waste that ends up there. And while only a few cities offer composting programs, you can DIY your own or rely on third-party composting services—here’s how to get started. (If you live in New York City and want the city’s composting program—which was shut down due to pandemic-related cuts—reinstated, you can find out how to advocate for its return here.) You can also look for creative ways to use food scraps that would otherwise be trashed, like eggshells, coffee grounds, garlic skins, and potato peels.

7. Get political

Ultimately—and unfortunately—none of the little things we do at home are going to move the needle as much as it needs to be moved to avert the climate crisis. That degree of change requires action from the government, which means that it’s important we vote for lawmakers and lobby for policies dedicated to tackling climate change. “We can clean up every beach in the whole world, but if we don’t have policy to stop the plastic from going into the water, we’re just going to be stuck cleaning,” says McCormick. (She and Nunez both note that the plastic industry is subsidized, which is what makes it so cheap. Its true cost is then passed on to consumers, who must find a way to get it out of their environment. Removing those subsidies would potentially incentivize corporations to use alternative materials.) 

Frankly, says Lauren Singer, zero-waste influencer @TrashIsForTossers and founder of Plastic Free, this means voting President Donald Trump out of office, as he’s actively rolled back environmental protections and thrown his support behind industries that pollute. Nunez also recommends you support specific legislation, like the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act 2020, by calling your representatives and senators to let them know these policies matter to their constituents. “I always talk about the power of an individual to make positive change, and I think that spans from asking yourself, ‘How much waste am I producing?’ to ‘What are my values, how am I living them every day, and how am I using my voice and my power to align the world with what I want to see?’,” says Singer.

Recent Black Lives Matter protests leading to action like the introduction of the BREATHE Act is proof positive of how change can be made if enough citizens demand it, and there are environmental groups (like Extinction Rebellion and Sunrise Movement) to join to increase your ability to pressure those in power. But you can create your own eco-minded groups to apply pressure locally or beyond, too, by looking for the people around you who are aligned on issues and then using your combined power to create the change you want. Says Singer, “Collective action works.”

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