Blog Contributor: Erica Harper
The spread of Covid-19 has changed the lives of millions of people around the globe in significant ways that will stay with them for a long time. Among many other things, the virus has made us more appreciative of family, friends, food, shelter, and essential employees such as grocery store and healthcare workers. As a Master of Sustainability candidate, it has been an interesting time to navigate through as single-use plastics become essential to avoiding the spread of the virus. That being said, as society begins to settle into a new “normal”, my hope is that innovation and strategic problem solving allow us to remain environmentally sustainable in times of extreme uncertainty in the future.
Living in a world that is suddenly more reliant on disposal gloves, masks, cups, cutlery, and bags than ever before can make it difficult to imagine what sustainability will entail for people and businesses post-pandemic. When chains like BulkBarn, Tim Hortons, and Starbucks began banning reusable containers and mugs, it was imperative to do so for hygiene reasons in this unprecedented time, but I couldn’t help but think about other (non-single-use plastic) solutions. Of course, at the time this was the appropriate action to take to ensure the health and safety of all employees and customers, and I understand that sustainability is far from top-of-mind during a global pandemic. That being said, fears of germs will continue to linger in people’s minds, and innovation is crucial to continuing on a path of sustainability for our planet. Although it can be discouraging to think about the increase use of and reliance on single-use plastics during this time, sustainability science is founded on being collaborative, innovative, solution-oriented, and being able to persevere when complexity arises. I strongly believe that this pandemic will encourage even more innovation in order to promote environmental sustainability in a safe and effective way for years to come.
To lessen the burden on our planet and waste management systems, my vision for post-pandemic times is that innovation is the key to allowing us to bring our own reusable materials to stores and coffee shops. There are definitely ways to reduce the reliance on single-use plastics while ensuring the health and safety of all by using technology and science. For example, I imagine grocery stores, bulk co-ops, restaurants, and cafés having technology-driven “sanitization stations” where customers must disinfect their hands and reusable products as they walk into a given establishment. Once this step is complete, they can safely use their bags, cups, or containers without fears of germs and contamination.
There also are ultraviolet (UV) disinfection devices that have been proven to eliminate up to 97.7% of pathogens in medical equipment found in operating rooms, as reported in this study by the American Journal of Infection Control. Devices with UV light technology could be used to sanitize parts of public places as well as personal belongings brought into public places (such as mugs or reusable bags) to reduce the spread of all germs. This type of device would make customers and employees more comfortable with the use of reusable products, thus providing a more sustainable option for eco-conscious consumers.
Although there are many unanswered questions surrounding the virus, I believe that complex technological solutions will provide organizations and individuals with the ability to continue leading a sustainable lifestyle. This will require patience, collaboration, and strategic decision-making as companies learn how to run the essential parts of their businesses amid uncertainty. It may seem as though sustainability has been completely thrown out the window during this pandemic, but I am confident that organizations will continue to prioritize it once possible, and maybe place even more importance on it than ever before. Instead of remaining discouraged about the influx of plastic waste being disposed of, I think it’s important to make a conscious effort to focus on the innovation and strategic problem solving that will come to the world of sustainability and help us all be better environmental stewards.