The pandemic has caused single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) to be used not only by health care workers but also by the general public, causing an exponential increase in the amount of single-use PPE waste. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: MACKENZIE MASON

In 2019, the global consumption of plastic amounted to 368 million metric tonnes. 

Over five trillion pieces of plastic are currently littering the ocean.

Plastic does not decompose, meaning that all plastic that has ever been produced is still present in one form or another.

Statistics like these are the daunting reasons I began a zero-waste journey back in 2019 to minimize my environmental footprint. However, my process quickly unravelled due to the wasteful COVID-19 pandemic.

Let me go back.

I took a sustainability class at Mount Royal University in the second year of my communications degree and had my first environmental awakening. Plastic sucks.

I was determined to remove as many plastic and single-use products out of my life as I could, starting with my slight coffee addiction.

Slight might be an understatement, but when I was actually commuting to school before the pandemic, I had to stop at Tim Hortons every day to get my fix — a large double-double, to be exact.

Although the exterior of the coffee cup holding the hot, heavenly elixir was made out of recyclable materials, the cups have a thin, plastic coating in the middle so that the brew actually stays in the cup.

This made sense, but it’s one of those things that you just don’t think about since these items are only in your possession for a few hours at most.

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

Disposable cutlery, straws and food packaging are among other types of single-use items that you don’t think about but have an astronomical impact on our planet. 

I began to learn that being mindful of your consumption involves being a lot more thoughtful in your actions. 

I started my zero-waste journey by always carrying around a reusable coffee cup, a water bottle, and a little baggy with a fork, knife, spoon, chopsticks and a few metal straws so that I was always prepared to minimize my waste.

I was slowing down to make sure I used the right bin if I had waste to dispose of, and I prepped my lunches so I wasn’t resorting to the Wykham House’ single-use plastic wormhole of a food court. 

I was excited and passionate about this new journey of mine, trying everything from reusable silicone snack bags, wool dryer balls, shampoo and conditioner bars, bamboo toothbrushes, toothpaste tabs, silicone bowl covers, beeswax food wrap, safety razors and even packaging-free deodorant.

And then the pandemic happened.

Enter my environmental existential crisis. I was dedicating so much time and effort to evaluating my everyday habits and what their potential impacts might be — but it seemed that nobody else was.

“I felt alone. I felt as though no one else cares for our planet, so why should I?”

Tim Hortons wouldn’t accept my reusable cups. My family started ordering everything online, which made my soul cry every time we received an Amazon order in a box 10 times the size of the item. This is a particularly bad problem for Amazon, which generated over 465 million pounds of plastic packaging waste in 2019 alone.

Our family also only bought items in single-use packaging to reduce the likelihood of our items being contaminated, hopefully eliminating the possibility of getting the virus.

And don’t forget the enormous impact single-use PPE like gloves and masks have had, littering our streets and our planet.

I felt alone. I felt as though no one else cares for our planet, so why should I? But I realized I’m not alone in these thoughts.

A qualitative study that spoke to 51 people from the ages of 19 to 70 in the United Kingdom explored the limitations individuals face when it comes to being green. 

It concluded that the key themes to emerge are consumers believe ‘it is too hard to be green’ due to external factors out of their control. They discussed “the green stigma” meaning green consumers are sometimes viewed negatively or unfavourably; the “green reservations” detailing consumers’ uncertainty towards participating in green consumption practices and finally that some consumers are just “not ready to be green.”

I have experienced each of these findings. Being green and making lifestyle changes is really hard, and the world doesn’t make it any easier.

I can’t tell you the number of times I ordered my double-double and told them I had a reusable cup, only for me to pull up to the counter and watch them pour my coffee from a disposable cup into my reusable cup and then throw the cup away. I cringed.

MRU has put effort into organizing waste across campus into three categories: waste, recycling and compost. But it doesn’t matter how diligent you are when others on campus throw their garbage into whatever bin is most convenient for them and contaminate the whole batch, resulting in all of it ending up in a landfill.

One of the hardest parts about being green is that the products you’re swapping out for disposable ones don’t work nearly as well most of the time. 

I bought the wool dryer balls to help eliminate using single-use dryer sheets that expose you to unnecessary toxic chemicals and take years to decompose, but they made my clothes more staticky than they would be if I just didn’t use anything at all.

The expensive safety razor that I had high hopes for so I could stop wasting the plastic razor inserts, worked well for the first few strokes, and then it was tough to shave any hair. I only got two or three uses out of it before it stopped working entirely.

“There’s a reason why being zero-waste is called a journey. Nothing happens in an instant and sometimes it feels like this is a fight that will be over when pigs can fly, or in this case, when plastic decomposes.”

Among other zero-waste swaps I made, like shampoo and conditioner bars (which I actually ended up loving) or bamboo toothbrushes and toothpaste tablets (which I didn’t love so much), I quickly learned that making these swaps were substantial lifestyle changes that, like the study mentioned above says, some people just aren’t ready to make.

But why should they have to make those swaps?

It’s always bothered me that being green or environmentally conscious is up to consumers, instead of the manufacturers, corporations and government officials that create and regulate the harmful and damaging products in the first place.

If there weren’t single-use plastics being manufactured, then those single-use items wouldn’t end up in landfills and oceans because they weren’t created in the first place. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

In 2019, the governing federal Liberal party made a campaign promise to ban certain types of plastic this year, like grocery bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, plastic cutlery and food takeout containers made from hard-to-recycle plastics.

Unfortunately, it has yet to happen, making the plastic crisis in the midst of a pandemic an issue that once again lies in the hands of consumers to make sustainable choices.

There’s a reason why being zero-waste is called a journey. Nothing happens in an instant and sometimes it feels like this is a fight that will be over when pigs can fly, or in this case, when plastic decomposes.

If you’ve become interested in minimizing your waste, you must know that this is a journey that has lots of ups and lots of downs.

Some will be internal battles like lifestyle habits you don’t want to give up, and some will be external factors like a global pandemic.

For me, and for the world, this is one of those ‘down’ moments. But no matter what, all that matters is that we continue to go in the right direction and hold each other accountable as individuals, as countries and as a planet to change those statistics that scared me straight — and I hope it will for you, too.