Consumers have slowly been moving towards more sustainable products and practices for decades now, with efforts ranging from high-level federal regulations, all the way to individual efforts like the improved multi-use products, composting, and trendy sustainable agriculture. In the era of Covid, some of those sustainable practices are going out the window in the name of sanitation and safety. Specifically, the use of single-use containers and plastic-ware is on the rise as more diners opt for delivery and take-out service. With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down in the U.S., we could be poised to reverse some of the environmental progress that has been made as we all adjust to life without in-restaurant dining. 

In the medical field, single-use plastics are common and a necessary part of ensuring safety. When sanitation, cost and efficiency are the primary concerns, disposable materials make sense. There is much less margin for error with disposables than with more durable items that have to be sanitized between uses. With a widespread contagious disease like COVID-19, it makes sense that businesses are looking to the same methods as hospitals; no one wants their restaurant to be the source of the next local outbreak.

In a busy restaurant environment, disposable options also save staff the time and hassle of having to thoroughly sanitize utensils, napkins, plates, and other items that may normally be reused. Time is money, and when restaurants are operating at half capacity, or even less in areas where indoor dining is still prohibited, less time spent washing and sanitizing can feel like it makes a difference. However, disposable materials are more expensive in the long run compared to reusable items, so it’s not as though restaurateurs are recouping profits. On top of that, by some measures single-use items are not actually any better at preventing the spread of viruses that are properly sanitized reusable options. Studies cited by plastics-industry manufacturers are usually based around other contaminants, not COVID. Regardless of whether single-use plastics are more or less sanitary, it’s hard to argue that they aren’t more convenient for takeout. How can you serve a salad with dressing, or tacos with salsa, without those small plastic containers? In those cases, there simply aren’t great or affordable alternatives.

In the current situation where so many more diners are forced or voluntarily opting to eat at home, all those food containers can add up quickly. In some studies, food containers, fast food packaging, and drink bottles are some of the most prolific types of plastic litter found on beaches. And those results are pre-covid, when many cities and countries were working on reducing plastic waste. A key issue when talking about any type of plastic is recyclability. As the Wall Street Journal notes, many of the types of plastics that are being used more frequently during the pandemic are precisely the types that are hard to recycle, such as thin plastic bags and single use wrappers. While many companies are producing items made from recycled materials, and even making compostable food containers, the lack of recyclability means that tons of waste inevitably end up in landfills and the environment at large.

There is no one great answer to these issues. Restaurants are going to have to continue to focus on takeout during the pandemic if they want to stay afloat, and they are putting in their best efforts to provide a safe experience for diners. As with everything COVID related, there is a learning curve that everyone has had to go through. As we settle into this post-COVID world, solutions will emerge, but for the near future it looks like we can expect to see a lot more plastic waste.