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A messy situation

COVID-19 is trashing our daily routines. It’s also, literally, creating more trash

Don’t be fooled. Despite a slight relaxation in social distancing orders and retailing restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Even if we see continued reductions in the number of new cases, we will likely not see a return to our pre-pandemic normal lives for at least a year, maybe longer. COVID-19 has caused the world to be inexorably changed.

This is an insidious virus that still is not fully understood. Its rapid spread around the world caught all healthcare professionals off guard. While it is now known that the virus is spread primarily from person to person directly (primarily through droplets released when someone coughs, sneezes or even talks), it also could potentially spread through touching inanimate objects such as counter surfaces, door handles and so on.

That is why grocers, who have heroically continued to serve their customers, diligently spray their checkouts, put Plexiglass between their cashiers and patrons, encourage the wearing of face masks, and enforce physical distancing.

What we don’t know is what will happen as we relax some of the restrictions by opening non-essential stores, restaurants and even schools. It’s a wait-and- see game that could force reactivating the severe restrictions should there be a sudden uptick in new cases.

Living in this COVID-19 world for the past several months has already cost world economies billions of dollars, with even more costs to come. Several meat and poultry processors have had to shut down for periods of time while they deal with ill employees. Transportation industries like airlines, buses and trains have been virtually at a standstill. Some airlines and bus companies won’t survive. Nor will countless restaurants and traditional retailers. COVID-19 has made a mess of life around the world.

One side effect not talked about enough is the impact COVID-19 will have on the environment. While there have been numerous reports on the positive effects of fewer cars on the road and planes in the sky when it comes to cutting carbon emissions, what about all the new trash being generated and going into landfills?

A major contributor to the volume of trash is the healthcare industry, which by its very nature can do nothing about the garbage it creates. Face masks, gloves, testing kits, gowns, and so much more are almost always used just once before being discarded. Medical waste is always sterilized, but eventually ends up in landfill. With millions of people sick with COVID-19, the amount of garbage generated could become overwhelming.

Careless ordinary citizens add to the problem by discarding their masks and gloves wherever they can without thinking. A video shot in Toronto showed dozens of masks and gloves in the gutters of a street near a hospital. Yikes!

Then there is the rise in plastic packaging waste related to the pandemic. From all the plastic bottles piling up due to hoarding bottled water and soft drinks, to empty containers from disinfectants and anti-viral sprays and creams, not to mention all those single-use plastic shopping bags that have come back into style now that customers can’t use reusable bags at many grocers—these things all must be disposed of, which means they may eventually end up in landfills or could add to the already existing crisis of plastic in our oceans and waterways.

“The increase in single-use plastics will have long-term impacts on the environment,” declares a World Economic Forum report titled Protector or polluter? The impact of COVID-19 on the movement to end plastic waste, published in early May. The report notes that “the devastating impact of COVID-19 and the extraordinary measures taken around the world have led to some tough questions for those working to combat plastic pollution.”

Until there’s a vaccine, COVID-19 will rule the world and our trash will keep piling up. Perhaps once this health crisis is behind us, we can start paying attention to the health of our environment.

This article appeared in the June/July issue of Canadian Grocer.

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