As we all return to the University of Connecticut — virtually or otherwise — for the third semester of college life riddled by the pandemic, it’s hard not to think about all the things we’re missing out on and all the things we can’t do on account of COVID-19. We can’t meet new people, we can’t go to our classes in person, we can’t work out in the gym without breathing through a sweat-infused bit of fabric.
Beyond that, sometimes it seems the pandemic is standing in the way of our personal goals: How can you see the world when international travel has come to a halt? How can you network when most gatherings are awkwardly stilted and virtual? How can you work on decreasing your waste when UConn packages all of your meals in disposable containers and hands out plastic silverware?
The pandemic seems like a natural enemy of zero-waste efforts as single-use plastics foster feelings of health and safety, and nobody wants to touch the same surface as you without plastic gloves or a disinfectant wipe-down. Undoubtedly, the pandemic presents challenges to living a zero-waste life, but that doesn’t mean we need to give up.
As we enter 2021, almost a year into global lockdown, here are some ways to avoid giving in to pandemic-induced and waste-increasing practices.
Don’t give up on reusables
Many businesses and restaurants have suspended their policies allowing customers to bring in and use their own reusable coffee cups or containers. There’s no more getting your Dunkin’ or your Pete’s Coffee in your travel mug. On a state level, Connecticut even suspended the tax on plastic bags for three months at the beginning of the pandemic.
This has led to an increase in single-use cups, straws, containers, plastic bags and more. Some of this is unavoidable. If a business won’t let you use your own cup, there’s nothing you can do about it. What you can do is avoid any of the single-use items you don’t need: Don’t take a straw. Ask them not to include ketchup packets or napkins when you order fries for delivery. Remember to bring your reusable bag to the dining hall, and bring cutlery and a small bottle of dish soap from home so you can forego the plastic forks.
Keep in mind that health experts have declared reusables safe to use during the coronavirus pandemic, so don’t stop using them — and of course properly cleaning them — in your own life.
Don’t turn to Amazon for everything
Since the first real lockdown went into effect last March, Amazon has been fulfilling the needs and desires of everybody who’s found themself stuck at home with nothing to do. Being able to go online and order almost anything we want for next-day delivery is tempting, especially when brick-and-mortar stores offer a higher risk than a delivery-person you may never have to interact with.
But while Amazon has thrived, other potentially more sustainable and ethical businesses have been struggling. While anybody working on living a more conscientious and zero waste lifestyle should always work to refuse and reduce what they don’t need in their lives, that doesn’t mean never buy anything.
However, before you head straight to Amazon to put more money in the pocket of recently-dethroned-as-richest-man Jeff Bezos, check out more sustainable and ethical brands and online stores. The Good Trade has compiled a list of sustainable or ethical brands that sell everything from clothing to home goods to office supplies, and English sustainability blogger Sophie Peach has made a list specifically of Amazon-alternatives. Change the World By How You Shop also has an ethical product guide where you can browse products by category to find items from a variety of ethical brands. Shopping responsibly can be hard, but there are plenty of guides and tips online to help you sort out the posers from the actually socially responsible.
Use sustainable PPE whenever possible
By this point, most people are using reusable masks, so it doesn’t really need much elaboration. Reusable masks are perfectly safe and effective, and save a lot of paper and plastic from ending up in the trash.
Beyond that, try to use disinfectant spray and a towel instead of single-use wipes to clean surfaces whenever possible. You will have to wash your towel regularly, but doing so will reduce trash.
Wash your hands with soap and water when you can avoid using hand sanitizer. If you really want to commit to sustainability, Sustainably Chic has a list of ethical hand-sanitizers, including several zero-waste options that aren’t too hard on your wallet.
Ultimately the secret to success is to keep thinking about ways to be more sustainable and eliminate waste. Remember the principles — refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle — and apply them whenever possible. If an obvious solution doesn’t present itself, that’s okay. If you’re not perfect, that’s okay too. It’s enough just to keep the goal in mind and to keep working at it. This column will continue throughout the semester to help you with both of those things, so be sure to stay tuned.