Improvements in water quality, clearing industrial smog and a reduction in aviation carbon emissions. The positive impact on the environment due to COVID-19, caused by a reduction in global movement and manufacturing, was sudden and dramatic and led many to believe that this global ‘circuit breaker’ would be beneficial to the environment.
However, while the drop in human environmental impact from March 2020 was precipitous, it was also short-lived. By June 2020, emissions were back to pre-pandemic levels, and additional environmental impacts have caused COVID-19 to, in fact, be a slow-burning environmental disaster.
While many physical restaurants and shops shut, consumption moved online and demand for food delivery and online retail services has increased astronomically since March 2020. The number of orders placed through food delivery service Doordash increased an incredible 277% in 2020, and Ubereats saw a 130% increase in orders. This has caused a correlating spike in the use of disposable food containers and cutlery, comprising of mainly single-use non-recyclable plastic.
Compounding the issue, fear of contamination has led businesses and consumers to utilise single-use food packaging options which are disposed of in landfill and which further exacerbate waste management concerns.
Even in supermarkets the use of packaging has increased. Sales of fresh food have fallen (e.g., fish, meat and cheese, whose sales volumes in the USA fell in 41.8%, 45.8%, and 15.2% respectively in 2020) and the sales of processed and pre-packaged foods have increased by 20–54%.
This is a disaster for already-stretched waste management services, who are also dealing with a deluge of single-use facemasks and personal protective equipment. Of course, not all single use packaging makes it to landfill, and single-use bags, plastic bottles, food containers and food wrappers are the four most widespread items polluting the seas, making up almost half of human-made waste.
A disaster for the environment, plastic food packaging is also disastrous for the human body. Recently, micro- and nanoplastics were found in 47 samples of human liver and adipose tissue and in the same study, bisphenol A (BPA), still used in food packaging, was found in all 47 human samples analysed, despite its alleged health risks.
The desire for takeaway and delivery food shows no sign of abating, even in a post-pandemic world. A recent study indicated that 53% of adults say purchasing takeout or delivery food is “essential to the way they live,” and 68% of customers say they are more likely to purchase takeout or delivery food than they were before the pandemic (according to data from the National Restaurant Association’s State of the Industry report released in January 2021). Restaurants themselves have also largely embraced this new way of reaching customers, and it’s evident that even in a post-pandemic world, the delivery model is here to stay.
More packaged food will inevitably lead to a tsunami of plastic food packaging in an already plastic-choked world, and consistent renewable alternatives must be considered.
There are green initiatives which have already positively impacted the food packaging industry. The banning in many countries of plastic straws, a reduction in the use of toxic polysterene containers and an increased use of wooden cutlery has all played a part, but more needs to be done.
Papyrus Australia’s sustainable technology converts waste banana tree trunks into fibre which can be used to replace wood and plastic based materials in food packaging. A biproduct of banana production, banana palm trunks are an abundant waste product globally, with a world-wide production weight of 2.2 billion tonnes per year. Food packaging made of banana fibre is biodegradable, meaning that it will decompose in landfill. Its production is a zero-waste, chemical-free process and it utilises a product which would otherwise have gone to waste.
As the world adapts to the changing covid environment, valid and necessary health and public safety concerns must be balanced with responsible and sustainable methods to enable communities to live safely. Papyrus Australia is proud to be part of this solution.
Find out more about Papyrus Australia’s sustainable technology solution here.