Updated: May 25, 2020
You may have seen some of the photos circulating online on cities previously suffocating in pollution now with beautiful blue skies and clean(er) air:
"Because there are so few cars on the road, few factories belching out black smoke and almost no active construction sites to create clouds of choking dust, pollution levels in New Delhi, India’s megalopolis capital, have dropped toremarkably low levels.
It’s not just Delhi, but Chennai, Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Ghaziabad. All across India, cities can suddenly breathe. Los Angeles, New York, Beijing, Seoul and Milan —they have experienced less pollution, too, hit hard by the virus and restrictions on people’s movement." -New York Times
It is certainly a great thing that one of the positive side-effects of this pandemic is lowered pollution levels as people drive less and factories are shut down, at the risk of serious economic damage, there may be a negative side of this in the form of more trash and littering.
Recently, several states and cities in the US and other countries have been banning single-use plastic bags, New York State included. New York's ban went into effect on March 1, even though it is mired in a legal battle, most stores had gone forward with it anyway thankfully.
Then came Coronavirus and upturned everything in our lives. States and cities have temporarily halted these bans and many grocery stores are banning customers from bringing reusable bags into stores because of fears that people are unknowingly carrying the virus in on their unwashed bags. Many grocery stores are offering free plastic and paper bags during the crisis, but that will just add to the waste stream. Adding insult to injury, people are leaving gloves all over parking lots of many stores, which is not only littering but also a hazard for the staff who have to go pick them up as they are considered contaminated.
Now add in all the takeout that we are eating because restaurant dining rooms are closed and many are delivery/takeout only. While I am 150% for supporting these local businesses get through this awful time, it saddens me to see all those plastic trays, cups, lids, and plasticware with every purchase. Kuddos to the restaurants who can and are using biodegradable/cardboard takeout containers. If you're reading this and thinking to yourself "but I recycle", well then there's the recycling crisis that is now two years old.
As we know, China stopped importing most post-consumer plastics from the US and the rest of the world to be recycled at the end of 2017. The West tried switching to other southeast Asian countries to dump our trash soon after, but they have followed China's lead and even sent some ships filled with plastic and trash back to the countries of origin. The sad truth is that without a domestic market for this plastic, for the time being most of what you put in those blue bins on garbage night ends up going to the landfill.
All hope is not lost though in light of my pessimism, we should continue to recycle, including rinsing off those takeout containers and lids before placing in the recycle bin. Keep up the habit, if only in the hope that we will develop domestic processes for turning these products back into something useful. Some in the NYS Legislature are looking at ways to encourage and putting money towards research on ways to recycle these products in state. Also, encourage the restaurants to use as little plastic as possible for your order, by forgoing plasticware which is an option on services like GrubHub. If you are calling the restaurant directly, ask them if they'd be willing to cut down on the plastic.
As gloomy as my post and the current events seem, I'm optimistic that we will get through the Coronavirus crisis and figure out the plastic and climate crises with technology.
Stay safe out there and don't leave your gloves in the damn parking lot!
Gloves in a parking lot. Credit NBC Philadelphia.