Coronavirus garbage crisis

On my run yesterday afternoon, it made me rather despondent to note the overflowing bins along the Mooloolaba esplanade, crammed full with plastic takeaway containers, utensils and coffee cups. Whilst, we are shown beautiful, clear skies over India, the clear waters of the Venice canals teeming with fish, and the cityscape of Los Angeles, evidently breathing better, the great irony is that we will all awaken from lockdown with a monumental garbage crisis.

I too have sacrificed my values during this pandemic, and have bought takeaway items in plastic. We can no longer dine in and enjoy a meal or drink inside a restaurant or café, and eat off a plate, and use proper utensils, like a civilised human being. Furthermore, most cafés and restaurants won’t allow customers to bring their own containers, defaulting to disposables, which generate copious amounts of plastic waste. This means many consumers cannot reduce their plastic waste, even if they wanted to. The only way to reduce waste in such places is to avoid them all together.

Demand for products such as tissues, toilet paper, disposable wipes, cleaning agents, hand sanitiser, disposable gloves and masks is at a record high. Unfortunately, the plastic packaging and the products themselves are also being thrown out in unprecedented volumes.

I have also noticed in supermarkets, shoppers continue to take masses of fruit and vegetable plastic bags, but not for their intended purpose – some mysophobic shoppers use them as makeshift gloves during grocery shopping. I cringe at such ruinous behaviour, but can I blame people for being super cautious about hygiene? In ordinary times, I would have considered this anal, obsessive-compulsive action as wasteful usage of plastic. Now, I cannot fault someone for being overly cautious.

The cynic in me also wonders if our recyclables are actually being recycled or whether the contents of our yellow-top bins are going straight to landfill. When oil prices fall, plastic is cheaper to make. This corrupts the economics of recycling. To be financially viable, a recycling operation has to make more money than what it costs to gather the waste and process it. If oil, and therefore plastic, is cheap to begin with, it doesn’t make economic sense for a company to process and sell recycled materials if they end up being more expensive than the virgin plastic another company is making.

I can’t wait for this pandemic to end, so we can go back to naming and shaming the people who apathetically throw out a lot of plastic.

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