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6 Ways Residents Are Adjusting to Single-Use Plastics & Sustainable Shopping in the Age of COVID-19
Philly

6 Ways Residents Are Adjusting to Single-Use Plastics & Sustainable Shopping in the Age of COVID-19

Reusable bags have been declared an unlikely mode of virus transmission, but the widespread use of single-use plastic continues at stores and restaurants nonetheless. Here’s how residents are navigating the sustainability hurdle.

Philadelphia achieved a major milestone in December 2019 when City Council passed a single-use plastic bag ban that would prevent retailers from providing plastic bags to customers—encouraging shoppers to carry reusable bags and minimize the plastic litter fluttering through the city’s streets.

But the onset of COVID-19 threw a wrench in the victory. Mayor Kenney announced he had delayed the plastic bag ban until January. Opponents have cited concerns that reusable cloth bags could carry the virus.

It’s likely the setback will stretch even longer. A provision in the state Senate and House 2020-21 budget threatens to push implementation as far back as July 2021, despite recent verification from over 125 scientists and health experts that reusables are safe if we practice basic hygiene. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also stated that the virus spreads primarily by inhaling aerosolized droplets rather than through contact with surfaces, further confirming that the health risks associated with reusable bags are slim.

Unfortunately, these conclusions have not swayed legislative decisions.

We may have to play the long game when it comes to awaiting the single-use bag ban, but many Green Philly community members continue to put effort into reducing their plastic footprint as much as possible.

Here’s how our readers and followers are utilizing their creativity, dreaming up sustainable solutions, and working to make sense of the pandemic’s environmental implications.

What’s the consensus? We polled our Instagram followers to find out.

We polled our Instagram followers to understand their shopping habits and consumption patterns during the pandemic. 56 percent of 327 respondents reported they have been using more single-use plastic during the pandemic, and 70 percent of 311 respondents said they still bring reusable bags to stores.

We also asked two open-ended questions to learn more about the shopping challenges that residents are facing.

Here’s what we discovered.

1. Packaging waste is a problem.

Many people are buying large hauls of food or having groceries delivered to their homes. Both options mean lots of excess bagging and individual packaging.

“With COVID, my packaging waste has definitely increased… I want to make sure grocery stores are sanitary and customers are safe, but the ways I normally reduce my plastic consumption are now deemed not okay,” acknowledged Instagram follower Mary Cortese.

Because of COVID-19 precautions and the limited stock at many grocery stores right now, individuals have to acquiesce and purchase items they need that are individually packaged.

“I end up giving in and buying the bulk item in its pre-packaged state because I feel like there isn’t another option,” Cortese says.

2. Plastic-free options are much more difficult to access during the pandemic—especially for those with health conditions.

Entering a crowded grocery store or food market is not only anxiety-inducing— it can be risky for those who are immunocompromised or have preexisting health conditions.

“I live with a child under one and a partner with severe allergies and asthma. As a household, we have decided to order things online including groceries and other items instead of going to a physical store,” shared Instagram follower Stephanie Hampson.

Those who rely on delivery services almost inevitably have to deal with excess plastic waste, and families are making the best of it by recycling whatever they can.

“Everything we get has some sort of plastic component whether that be a plastic grocery store bag or a bag that holds the item in a cardboard delivery box. We do try to recycle what we can, but anything we can’t goes into a garbage bag,” noted Hampson.

3. Many people feel guilty for breaking their green habits and routines.

In the pre-coronavirus world, many of us relished the sustainable actions we had control over, like bringing a reusable cup to a local coffee shop.

Now that these small comforts have been stripped from us, it’s a common to feel guilty about the broader effects of throwing so many items away.

“I have a big coffee habit and want to support local coffee shops as much as possible, but without accepting reusables it will inevitably lead to more waste,” said Cortese.

And as the pandemic marches on, some are realizing that their scaled-down green habits have had an impact on the increase in waste over the last few months.

“In the beginning I didn’t notice the change in consumption as much because it felt like I was only doing it for a short time. Just a couple of coffee cups here and there. But now that we have been living like this, and will be living like this, for much longer the waste is becoming a lot more apparent. So much for Plastic Free July, right?” remarked Cortese.

4. There are more financial barriers to sustainable shopping.

Organic foods are often 10 to 30 percent more expensive than their mass-produced counterparts, and consistently buying sustainable food can be a financial strain.

Those who have been furloughed or laid off during the pandemic may no longer have the financial capacity to buy sustainably or organically.

“Organic is pretty much a non-option right now, we’re just trying to keep our daily costs low to save as much as we can in case more financial hardships are to come,” explained Erin Arnold on Facebook.

5. Choosing local producers and delivery can minimize plastic and help reduce waste.

Customers can limit their plastic use by visiting Rittenhouse Farmers’ Market, Headhouse Farmers’ Market, or by taking advantage of local CSAs.

Residents recommended some of their favorite spots.

We focus more heavily on any extra goods I can get through Hungry Harvest produce delivery,” shared Arnold.

Hungry Harvest provides farm to doorstep delivery of produce with minor imperfections that would otherwise be thrown away. Each delivery eliminates at least ten pounds of food waste. Take a look at their harvest box options here.

For those seeking single-use plastic replacements in their household, a new Etsy shop called Sustainable Stitching may be able to help.

“[Olivia’s] Philly based Etsy shop is filled with single use plastic replacements for things that you may not even realize are adding up as waste! Things that we use all the time and throw away in less than a day. Like cotton pads, cold brew bags, tea bags, & storage bags. Check out her shop for an easy way to reduce single use plastic,” encouraged Colleen Burns on Facebook.

6. Philadelphians have their own ideas for building a plastic-free future.

While we await implementation of the single-use plastic bag ban, many residents are thinking of other ways to make our city a more sustainable place.

“I’d love a reusable take out container service in Philly (there are examples in Seattle and Toronto and a few other cities) as this has been highlighted in the time of COVID, but it would be fabulous if we carried a sustainable option into the future,” suggested Meredith Nutting on Facebook.

There are also requests for Philly food vendors to implement a canvas bag exchange.

“I’d love it if more food vendors/grocery stores would do a canvas bag exchange. You go and purchase your groceries and they estimate how many canvas bags would be needed to pack and deliver them. After that, you would purchase a one-time fee per bag. When you decide to use the service again, you would give the delivery person your canvas bags to put them back in the rotation to be sanitized and reused again,” describes Hampson.

Others are repurposing items that they have no choice but to bring home after shopping.

“I know Trader Joe’s wasn’t allowing [reusable bags] for a while, but I use the paper bags for compost so I didn’t mind,” said Shelby Guercio on Facebook.

For those eager to put their reusable bags to use, Trader Joe’s on Arch Street is now allowing customers to bag their own groceries by placing items back in the cart.

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Avery Matteo
Avery is a junior at Bryn Mawr College majoring in Environmental Studies and minoring in English. She is currently an Editorial Intern at Green Philly. In her free time, you can find her curled up with an iced coffee, a book, and her adorable dog Cosmo. View all posts by Avery Matteo

2 thoughts on “6 Ways Residents Are Adjusting to Single-Use Plastics & Sustainable Shopping in the Age of COVID-19

  1. Another idea for sustainable shopping: If you have the option of self-check out, you can reuse plastic bags, even if recyclable, for fruits and vegetables. Do not tie or weigh and sticker (mostly not an option during the pandemic) or it will be very difficult to use again. Stuff in your cloth tote bags and take with you the next time you shop. This can be done even if you do not use self-check out, but it takes a bit more care to make sure contents do not spill out of the bag.

  2. I seem to remember that one of the counter arguments from the plastic bag industry was that there were places to bring plastic bags to get them recycled. It’s not a great option, but some of us would make the extra effort if we knew where we could take our bags. Is there an up to date list of where plastic bags can be recycled? I used to put them in a bin at CVS, but that option is no longer there. It would be great if your website could research this and publish a list. I’ve been saving plastic bags since the start of the pandemic and my plastic bag box is full.

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