It’s no secret that recycling efforts have been put on hold due to the pandemic. Despite reports showing a massive uptick in plastic use, nearly half of Americans believe they are using the same amount of plastic as pre-COVID-19.
So why do Americans think they’re using less plastic than they really are? It could be that people spend much more time at home than ever before or that they are unaware of how much plastic some items contain — and the numbers support it: the amount of municipal plastic waste increased by 20 percent between March and April 2020, right at the start of lockdowns across the nation.
In honor of National Recycling Day (November 15), we used Google Surveys to analyze data from over 2,000 respondents to find out how COVID-19 has impacted people’s recycling habits and came up with solutions for renters to reduce their impact on the plastic pandemic. This survey ran in October 2020.
COVID-19 has brought back the widespread use of single-use plastics due to sanitary concerns. Because of this, we wanted to see what Americans thought about their own plastic consumption habits during the pandemic. Of those surveyed, only 17 percent reported increasing plastic use during COVID-19 and nearly half (47 percent) reported the same amount of plastic usage — but nationwide data paints a different picture. According to the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, the U.S. could create one year’s worth of plastic medical waste in just two months.
With just over one-third (36 percent) of respondents unsure of whether their plastic consumption has increased, it’s clear that environmental concerns have taken a backseat due to the pandemic. Additionally, many recycling centers have closed their doors due to health concerns, meaning that materials that would normally be sent to a recycling center are being overflowed to landfills.
It seems like Americans may not realize how much plastic they are genuinely using during the pandemic. Everything from single-use grocery bags to plastic silverware counts, resulting in a 20 percent average increase in municipal solid waste and recycling collection from March into April 2020 — only the beginning months of the pandemic.
So why are Americans underreporting plastic use? It’s likely that most people just don’t realize all the small ways that plastic consumption has increased since March.
Take getting food from a restaurant, for example. Beyond the basics like a plastic takeout bag and cutlery, many other single-use items have to be disposed of to create your meal. Workers might have to dispose of single-use gloves between each order, not to mention the disposable masks used up each day just to be out in public.
Although the average recycling rate is 35 percent, the plastic recycling rate is just 8 percent. On top of that, the recycling contamination rate of 17 percent means that sustainable recycling happens even less than you think.
Of those surveyed, nearly one out of four respondents (24 percent) reported not having access to regular recycling pickup, with 36 percent saying they didn’t know whether their neighborhood offered pickup services. Less than half (42 percent) reported having regular recycling pickup in their neighborhood.
Overall, older generations had easier access to recycling pickup services, with half of those 55+ reporting having convenient access. With so many people spending more time at home, it comes as no surprise that e-commerce consumption rates increased 37 percent in the first half of 2020. From clothing to cleaning supplies, the e-commerce industry has boomed during the pandemic.
But a surge in e-commerce also means an increase in shipping — and an increase in packaging. With significantly more goods transported through the mail, Americans need convenient access to recycling services to minimize the plastic pandemic’s environmental impact.
To many people, tossing plastic into the recycling bin and hoping it’s actually recyclable is as far as they get. But it’s important to understand that not all plastic is created equal and correctly sorting your plastic is crucial to ensure it doesn’t end up contaminating your whole bin.
The best way to minimize your carbon footprint is by minimizing plastic use in general. With the new rules and regulations of the pandemic, it’s essential to be up to date with the best ways to reduce plastic use during COVID-19.
A single plastic bag can take up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill. Bringing your own bags to the grocery store can make a big difference, but many grocers aren’t allowing reusable bags during the pandemic due to sanitary concerns.
To minimize single-use plastic, put your items back in your cart or basket after checking out and transfer them to your bags once you are outside the store. Some grocers, like Trader Joes, have set up outdoor bagging stations to make this process easier. Just be sure to budget a few extra minutes for the time it takes to bag your groceries outside the store — the environment will thank you for it.
Personal impact: save up to 1,500 plastic bags per year.
With so many people ordering takeout, the impact of single-use cutlery and takeout boxes can start to add up. Look for eco-friendly takeout options, including:
Ordering takeout is the safest option for dining out during the pandemic. Whether you order food delivery to your apartment or go pick it up yourself, you can minimize the environmental impact of your meal by being cognizant of ways to reduce plastic usage.
American consumers buy 50 billion plastic water bottles each year and recycle only 20 percent of them. Reusable water bottles are an easy way to minimize your environmental impact and eco-conscious companies are coming up with reusable solutions. Now, you can find reusable water bottles that keep your water colder for longer while reducing your plastic waste.
Personal impact: Save an average of 167 plastic bottles per year, or around $266.
Due to the pandemic, disposable PPE has skyrocketed to around 12 times the usual amount. But items like disposable face masks and latex gloves are treated as medical waste and can cause your entire recycling bin to be contaminated — so the amount of waste created from PPE can be much greater than you think.
Single-use PPE should be saved and prioritized for those who need it, like frontline hospital workers. Hospitals are equipped to dispose of these items properly. Still, the average American isn’t, meaning we could be doing much more harm than good by trying to recycle our disposable PPE.
Improper disposal of just one percent of PPE can lead to 15 to 20 tons of waste — about equivalent to a fire truck’s weight. To do your part in protecting yourself and the environment, opt for reusable cotton face masks and gloves, but be sure that your PPE complies with CDC guidelines.
Personal impact: Save up to 365 disposable PPE masks per year.
Another way to reduce your environmental impact is to look for low-waste options when shopping. This can include things like:
The fashion industry alone contributes 10 percent of the world’s carbon emissions and 85 percent of textiles end up in a landfill each year — that’s the equivalent of one garbage truck per second. While shopping sustainable brands is great, it’s not always within an American renter’s budget. The best solution is to buy less: a pair of jeans uses an average of 2,000 gallons and a shirt 700 gallons of water to produce, so reducing your purchasing habits will make a bigger difference than anything else.
Personal impact: If you reduced clothing purchase by just one pair of jeans and one t-shirt per year, you could save the same amount of water as an average monthly water bill, which costs $72.31.
During the pandemic, some disposable bag use is inevitable. However, just because a bag is meant for single-use doesn’t mean you can only use it once. If you have to use a single-use plastic bag, bring it home and use it to line your trash can or to pick up your dog’s poop — any way you can reduce plastic use can make a difference.
Personal impact: By reusing each plastic bag once, you could cut plastic bag usage in half from and save an average of 750 plastic bags per year.
The pandemic has upended life as we knew it, but just how much will it affect us down the road? We took a look at the environmental cost of the pandemic to determine the best ways to stay safe while minimizing environmental impact.
The recycling rules have changed during COVID-19 due to the massive increase in disposable PPE and medical waste. Make sure you’re up to date with how to recycle correctly during the pandemic.
If you are part of the nearly one in five Americans without access to curbside recycling, it can make it that much more challenging to live sustainably. Here’s how you can recycle when you don’t have access to curbside pickup.
According to our recent coronavirus neighbor survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they have helped a neighbor out during the crisis. Do an act of kindness for your neighbors (and the environment) by creating a neighborhood recycling program to make it easier for everyone to live more sustainably.
This survey was conducted for Apartment Guide using Google Consumer Surveys. The sample consisted of 2,000 total responses. Post-stratification weighting has been applied to ensure an accurate and reliable representation of the total population. This survey was conducted in October 2020.
This survey shows an unfortunate reality of the state of recycling during the COVID-19 pandemic. You can do your part in minimizing the environmental impact of the pandemic on our world. From ordering packages to your apartment in minimal packaging to encouraging communal recycling efforts with other renters; small changes can be made that make a big difference. Check out our guide to recycling in the age of COVID-19 below.