Erika Larson has been trying to stay home as much as possible. She rarely drives, so she’s cut pollution from her car to nearly zero.
But because of the concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the steps she usually takes to avoid single-use plastics — including buying in bulk, reusing her containers and seeking products without packaging — have gone by the wayside.
“I find myself shopping outside of my normal routine and buying things more often in packaging,” said Larson, who lives in Minneapolis and runs an online thrift and handmade goods store called Heirloom General. She’s also found that neighborhood stores she now frequents have discontinued bulk offerings.
On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, air pollution has drastically dropped above cities around the world, falling by 30% in northeast U.S. cities according to NASA and levels of nitrogen dioxide from burning fuel have plummeted during travel restrictions — improvements that are significant, but likely temporary.
At the same time, however, the pandemic has caused many of us to toss some of the environmentally friendly habits that had just begun to take hold across America.
Those little green steps forward — like bringing in your coffee mug for a refill, avoiding disposable products or toting a reusable cloth shopping bag — are now off-limits in many places.
Green cleaning products that use Earth-friendly but less potent ingredients like vinegar sit on shelves while shoppers snap up ones with bleach.
And even “zero wasters,” who avoid packaging and single-use plastics to drastically reduce their trash, are finding themselves forced to set aside some of eco-friendly practices.
“I think it’s important to accept that people need to do what they need to do right now to keep themselves and their families safe,” said Kate Marnach, co-owner of Minneapolis’ Tare Market, which sells packaging-free goods. “But I hope this doesn’t massively halt the zero waste movement. Our planet still needs us to make an effort to reduce our resource use and trash output.”
Changes in the bulk aisle
It’s not just green consumers who are feeling the pressure.
To be as safe as possible, Minnesota grocery stores and food coops are modifying hours, changing cleaning routines and shifting policies that once welcomed zero-waste practices.
At the Seward Community Co-op, customers cannot use reusable containers or their own tote bags (the store is waiving the regular 5-cent charge for store-provided bags) during the pandemic. Seward does give folks who are determined to use their own reusable bags a loophole of sorts: They can skip bagging inside the store, check out, reload groceries into their carts and take it outside, where they can then transfer their purchases into their own bags.
At both the Wedge Community Co-op and Linden Hills Co-op, the latest policy update allowed reusable bags, but required customers who use them to bag their own groceries.
Tare Market’s bulk bins of dry goods and spices remain open, said Marnach, but there’s a limit on the number of customers in the store and they’re being asked to wash their hands when they come in.
The market’s co-founder, Amber Haukedahl, a conservation biologist, said that she’s noticed more people buying plastic-wrapped food “to ensure the food is ‘safe.’ ”
“Some people believe that anything wrapped in plastic is sanitary, while items that are package-free are contaminated,” she said. “This increase in purchasing foods wrapped in plastic will have a negative effect on the environment, as plastic will become microplastics over time, contaminating our groundwater and soil, and never decompose,” she said.
Jenna Bergendahl’s family has been strict about social distancing, even forgoing in-person grocery shopping to get deliveries from Instacart and Imperfect Produce, which sells produce and dairy goods that are in surplus or have cosmetic flaws.
The Minneapolis family of five usually tries to reduce the amount of trash they produce each week by avoiding plastic. But packaging and plastic bags have re-entered their lives during the quarantine.
“Reducing single-use plastics was an uphill battle before the pandemic,” said Bergendahl, “and I think that we’ll have work to do as a society to reduce our plastic consumption once we have recovered.”
That doesn’t mean the family is just waiting for an all-clear. Instead, they’re trying to reduce waste in other ways.
“I’m using less of everything and trying to make what we have stretch a little farther,” she said. “We waste less food because we’re eating our leftovers, and I’m freezing excess produce, if we have any, instead of letting it wilt in the fridge. If I get anything in a plastic bag, I hang onto it and use it for garbage.”
Tare Market’s owners initially had big plans to celebrate Earth Day, but most have been foiled by the pandemic. Still, they are hosting a virtual book club event to discuss the book “A Zero Waste Home.”
To mark the day, Bergendahl and her family plan to build a Little Free Library, which they’ll stock with canned goods and toilet paper. Her kids have said they’re sick of video games and Zoom calls and are clamoring to spend time outside, which makes her hopeful.
“The kids played capture the flag in our tiny backyard last night. Everyone stopped and stared when a red-tailed hawk, and then a bald eagle, flew overhead,” she said. “I’ve always believed that spending time in nature leads people to want to protect it, and I wonder, if the thrill of screens continues to dissipate, if this will happen for my children.”