Will Coronavirus Harm the Zero Waste Movement?

World emergencies have knock on effects on so many aspects of life. Many of which we don’t even consider.

I’ve been thinking about the Coronavirus and the potential impact on the Zero Waste movement.

Panic Buying

At the beginning of the pandemic, news stories and social media updates showed empty shelves in supermarkets. I like to think that bulk bought toilet paper will get gradually used up, but what about rice, pasta and hand sanitizer? I’m wondering how many people are panic buying things they don’t even like. While rice and pasta are fantastic storecupboard standbys, they do need to be stored correctly to avoid weevils. And I’ve never used hand sanitiser in my life, so I assume I’m not alone in this – will those little plastic bottles wind their way into landfill in a couple of years time?


Reusable Containers

Starbucks were one of the first companies to reward customers for taking their own reusable cups to their stores. Disposable coffee cups are a massive problem as they are rarely recycled. And with the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, we’ve recently seen an upsurge in the amount of consumers being aware of this and wanting to do the right thing. Sadly though, Starbucks issued an open letter stating they were pausing the use of personal cups in some of their branches worldwide. Before long supermarkets were refusing customer’s containers for buying their own goods, some shops were even banning reusable bags, dropping the charge on disposable plastic carrier bags (which is a bit questionable because you know what has come into contact with your own reusable bags (and can wash material ones in the machine if necessary) but you don’t know who or what has touched your disposable bag that’s been hanging around in a supermarket) and bulk bins became a thing of the past with many ‘Zero Waste’ stores closing. All of these moves, although designed to help minimise the risk of spread of disease, kind of takes us backwards and we’ll need time to secure people’s trust once the virus is no longer a threat.

Disposable items

As well as toilet rolls, disposable items such as once-use plastic gloves and face masks have been flying off the shelves. I always advocate personal health before anything else – after all, if you’re not fit and healthy then you can’t take care of the environment. But again, how many of these disposable items will end up trashed, maybe not even used, once the Coronavirus is over? In a recent article, evidence was already mounting for environmental waste as French divers found “Covid waste” – waterlogged latex gloves, disposable face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser beneath the waves of the Mediterranean.

Stockpiling medication

I saw a Facebook post from a few months back, which showed one patient’s stockpilled medication. Of course it’s tempting to stock up in situations like this, as there can be real risks if you’re on vital life-saving medication, but stockpiling it can be costly, unnecessary and lead to waste. Medication has an expiry date, and unlike the one on your tin of tomatoes, you don’t want to be blasé about taking old medicines. Plus if you have excess medication in your home, it can be dangerous to children and pets if not stored correctly. Then there are risks to other people who need the same medication if our supplies were to run low – we’re all in this together and need to think like the herding animals we are. IN 2015, it was estimated that stockpilled medication was costing the NHS £300m per year.

stockpilled medication


But what about the upsides – every cloud has a silver lining doesn’t it?

The piece of news that caught my eye early on in this pandemic was that virtually overnight, China’s carbon emissions were slashed by 25%. This is because Wuhan went into lockdown which meant hundreds of millions of people were isolated and businesses and factories were shut down. The atmosphere above China in NASA satellite images appears virtually clean of nitrous oxide emissions. Of course there can be negative consequences in all of these scenarios – loss of wages, vulnerable people unable to get hold of supplies and yes, it may lead to long term loss of jobs if the economy takes a nose dive, but I find it fascinating that something that can take years to bring online (reduction in emissions) can happen overnight when we really need to take action over something. In every situation there are winners and losers – restaurants, event venues and take away services might lose out, but household cleaning supplies companies, toilet roll manufacturers and online shopping delivery services will definitely be winners!

Air quality during the pandemic

It wasn’t long before large gatherings and air flights were cancelled. Again, while this caused disruption and loss of income for some, the environment and the quality of air we breathe improved.

At the time of writing this article, the global death toll from COVID-19 was around 400,000. Yet according to Greenpeace, air pollution from burning fossil fuels  is attributed to an estimated 4.5 million deaths each year worldwide. So one thing we might be able to take on and build from this experience is that we invest in the circular economy and restructure businesses to include more remote working and video conferencing. Plus emphasise local economy so that some supplies can be better guaranteed in times of crisis; rather than being faced with empty shelves in our stores.

Let’s take a moment to talk about our states of mind. Rising death tolls, unprecedented unemployment and physical isolation have caused a surge in mental health issues, with nearly half of adults surveyed by the Office for National Statistics saying they had high levels of anxiety and deep levels of concern and stress. If any aspect of Covid-19 is affecting your mental wellbeing then it’s worth seeking professional help. You may find this is covered by health insurance if finances are an issue right now, and you don’t need to leave your home to see a counsellor or therapist – many are now offering telephone or video conferencing appointments.

will coronavirus harm the zero waste movement


Only 9% want to return to ‘normal’ life

Maybe we can take the ‘good bits’ and learn from them. In one poll, it was discovered that only 9% of Britons wanted life to return to ‘normal’ once lockdown was over. They had noticed significant changes including cleaner air, more wildlife and stronger communities. I was heartened to read that 42% of participants now value food more than they did before the pandemic, 33% are throwing away less food and 38% were cooking more from scratch.

So while we might not be able to recycle our carrier bags or get our takeout coffee in our own reusable cups at the moment, we can become even MORE Zero Waste in our own homes by buying less and making the most of what we already have. This pandemic has been a wake up call in many areas of our lives, not least it’s given us the opportunity to consume less and become more discerning about what you bring into your home. And let’s remember, once this pandemic is a thing of the past the climate, the environment and the planet will still be needing our attention.

Take our online course!

If you want help with this, check out our course – only £5 during lockdown which will show you exactly how to make the most of your food, learn to use the things you already have more resourcefully, save space in your bin and recycling containers so you don’t have to worry about getting to the recycling centre and develop new skills that will last a lifetime. You’ll come out of lockdown viewing it as a positive experience full of opportunities for a better way of living!

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Rachelle Strauss

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