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As the world continues battling the coronavirus crisis that has drastically altered everyone’s daily lives, concerns for the environment have taken a backseat.
With the ramping up of hygiene regimes, mandatory face mask and face-covering rules, our hand wash and disposable gloves habit, and the banning of reusable cups, the pandemic has renewed our addiction to plastic and it’s caused a huge surge in littering in streets, parks and beaches across the UK and beyond.
Globally, it’s estimated that we’re using 129 billion face masks and 65 billion plastic gloves every month. According to a UCL study, if every person in the UK used a single-use plastic face mask every day for a year, it would create an additional 66,000 tonnes of contaminated waste and 57,000 tonnes of plastic packaging.
Being eco-friendly might be the last thing on your mind during a global pandemic, but there are swaps and small changes we can all make in an attempt to look after the planet while preventing the spread of the virus.
1. Choose soap over hand wash and hand sanitiser
Ditch single-use plastics where possible, this includes soap dispenser bottles and hand sanitiser bottles. Ultimately, Nina Schrank, plastics campaigner for Greenpeace believes that it’s better to wash your hands regularly with soap rather than anti-bacterial gel: “If you can buy naked bars of soap that comes in minimal wrapping rather than plastic packaged multipacks, the advice is to wash your hands with soap and it doesn’t specify that it has to be liquid hand wash out of a pump-action plastic bottle or gel.”
It’s understandable that there will be a trade-off between people wanting to protect their health and protecting the environment, but where alternatives don’t exist, some plastic items may still fee necessary. “Only use the alcohol gels when you don’t have any other option,” Schrank adds. “Buy a big tub of sanitiser where you can decant into smaller ones and reuse the bottle again.”
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2. Use a reusable mask over a disposable mask
Reusable face masks and coverings are much better for the environment than single-use disposable face masks. Fabric cloth masks and coverings can be machine-washed, but for single-use options, every time you throw one away you’re generating more rubbish for landfill. Jason Alexander, founder of social enterprise Rubbish Walks based in Ipswich, on some days he’d pick up to 50 masks and 30 pairs of gloves in a single clean up session and explains:
“Since the pandemic, we’ve taken one step forward, three steps back in reducing our single-use plastics use and it’s getting worse as far as I can see.”
Currently, there aren’t any recycling possibilities for single-use masks, but another rising concern is the potential source of contamination and infection when personal protective equipment hasn’t been disposed of correctly.
“As well as the environmental cost of throwing away face masks, people should be considering getting rid of them safely,” Alexander explains. “What does face masks, gloves, cigarette butts, crisp packets, plastic bottles, and fast food wrappers all have in common? They’ve all been handled, they’ve all been near or in somebody’s mouth. We need to protect others from potential biological hazards and infected litter.”
Next time, rather than buying. Go that one step further on your carbon footprint and try making your own mask. If you’re DIY-ing it you can reuse old materials that work well such as tea towels, cotton-blend fabrics, denim, and antimicrobial pillowcases.
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3. Don’t wear disposable gloves and limit the use of wipes
You might have seen people wearing disposable gloves in public, but are they really necessary?
According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, they advise “there is insufficient evidence to recommend the regular use of gloves as a preventive measure in the context of Covid-19.”
Professor Sally Bloomfield, honorary professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine previously told HuffPost UK: “What good are gloves going to do? Whilst you’re walking around the supermarket, you could easily touch your nose, mouth, and eyes with gloved hands.”
Gloves generate extra environmental waste and regular hand washing is the way to go. This also applies to wet wipes, too. “Wet wipes are not recyclable,” a Marine Conservation Society spokesperson explains, “We find many of these on our beaches, mainly from sewers as they are flushed down the toilet instead of being disposed of properly in the bin. Over our Great British Beach Clean last year, we found an average of 19 wet wipes for every 100m of beach.”
4. Avoid disposable coffee cups at all costs
In the early stages of the pandemic, coffee chains such as Starbucks, Costa Coffee, and Pret announced they were no longer accepting reusable coffee cups or offering refillable water over fears of contamination.
More than two and a half billion coffee cups are used in the UK every year and despite a statement co-ordinated by Greenpeace and signed by virologists, epidemiologists, biologists, academics, chemists and doctors that suggested thoroughly-washed reusable cups, bottles and jars can be safely used without spreading the virus, most of the big chains kept their new policy.
“Sadly, these changes still hold firm on companies’ refusal to accept reusable coffee cups or acceptable reusable water bottles,” says Schrank from Greenpeace. “This is another element of plastic waste that can be easily avoided.”
Make your coffee at home, visit a chain that’s back to accepting your re-usable mug or maybe just consider giving that coffee a miss today.
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5. Reconsider how you shop and order food
For many, buying groceries online and getting them delivered has been a lifesaver, but for some such as supermarkets, restaurants, and takeaways this may have spurred on bad habits such as delivering in plastic bags and unnecessary plastic food packaging.
“Many of the hospitality industry are struggling to survive and they had to adapt their business models over the past few months,” explains Alexander. “The way people shop has changed drastically over the past few months, too. I’d encourage people to try to shop as plastic-free as possible by bringing their own bags and use refillable containers. Try to think locally, like corner shops, greengrocer and butchers.”
Besides smarter shopping choices, why not support local suppliers and producers too? Shop seasonally and prevent surplus food waste with vegetable boxes, or buy direct from farmers, grocers, butchers and cheesemongers.
They’re the ones struggling the most at the moment and every little helps.
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.