Dumpster Fire: Waste in the Time of COVID-19

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The world is different now, but you already knew that. Instead of smiling as we pass each other on the street, we communicate with raised eyebrows and subtle nods. Romantic dinners by candlelight are condensed into takeout boxes by the glow of our computer screens. And our new lifestyles of self-isolation and sweatpant-lounging are swiftly leading us toward new, perhaps environmentally harmful, habits. We might not be doing much these days, but we sure are producing a lot of trash.

The United States has been in the midst of a recycling crisis for years, but no one seems to be talking about it. Back in 2018, China enacted its “National Sword” policy, banning the importation of 24 types of solid waste. Processing the world’s trash was profitable for Chinese recycling plants and advantageous for America’s linear economy, which generates an extraordinary amount of waste every day. But the practice of exporting waste to China ultimately did more harm than good for the environment. Many of the so-called recyclables coming to China were considered dirty or contaminated, from grimy jars to unrecyclable plastics. What couldn’t be recycled had to be dumped; land and water pollution skyrocketed. The pollution emanating from the recycling plants outweighed both the plants’ financial and environmental benefits.

The United States has been in the midst of a recycling crisis for years, but no one seems to be talking about it.

Many American cities that relied on China to sift through their recycling were left struggling to come up with alternatives. Philadelphia brought more than half of its recyclables to the incinerator. The practice, however, emits significant amounts of carbon dioxide, nullifying any benefits of the extra landfill space. After much pushback, the city brokered a deal with Waste Management, an American waste services company, to process its waste instead of simply burning it. While this initiative is more environmentally conscious, it will cost Philadelphians $9 million in taxes this year alone

While the government may oversee waste collection, the private sector often carries out much of the work. In Chicago, private companies have full control over what goes to recycling plants and what goes to landfills. Sifting through recyclables takes time and money; for these private enterprises, it is more economical simply to throw away recyclable materials. Only nine percent of all waste is recycled in Chicago, earning the city one of the worst recycling rates in the nation. Further, due to the targeted placement of incinerators and other waste facilities in low-income communities of color across America, the public health, economic, and environmental ramifications of burning waste are experienced most intensely by Black and Brown Americans of low socioeconomic status.

Even before China’s ban, America struggled to recycle effectively. In its most recent report, released in 2017, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that only about 35 percent of trash, 66 percent of paper, and six percent of food was recycled or composted. One can only imagine how much the National Sword policy worsened these recycling rates.

COVID-19, which arrived in the wake of the National Sword fallout, exacerbated our trash problem. There was a 20 percent uptick in waste between March and April 2020. Our latex gloves and UberEats bags are piling up, and few are left to handle the waste.

Sanitation workers have had to pick up increasingly large volumes of trash, resulting in more trips to the landfill. Not only does this process produce added waste and increase carbon dioxide emissions, it also exposes these workers to potentially hazardous material for protracted periods of time. Moreover, many recycling plants are staffed by incarcerated people, who are already at higher risk of catching COVID-19 because of overcrowding and a lack of proper safety measures in American prison system. While the prisons are overcrowded, social distancing precautions leave these plants understaffed. Longer processing times, combined with a higher volume of waste, leave workers in a hopeless situation. Coupled with the risk of getting ill, workers and their communities have been directly impacted by the changing waste practices. The piles of recycled materials seem to grow by the day. 

Pandemic-related safety concerns have made it even more difficult to practice environmentally-friendly behaviors. Many businesses are abandoning sustainable practices in favor of virus-protection measures. Grocery stores have stopped accepting reusable bags, and coffee shops have discontinued serving drinks out of water bottles and thermoses. Some thrift shops are refusing donations, creating both an excess of spring-cleaning clutter and fewer options for those who rely on second hand stores. While businesses have no other choice but to prioritize the health and safety of their customers and employees, the environmental and public health effects of waste practices disproportionately impact low-income communities, incarcerated people, and communities of color, deepening structurally racist and classist fault lines. 

Yale, too, has opted for a reopening plan that abandons sustainability for the sake of safety. With the grab-and-go dining system, each element is packaged separately. Every individual meal produces an egregious amount of waste; a bag, napkins, utensils, and individually packaged food items. 

The single-use plastic in each dining hall serving isn’t going unnoticed. Many students are making conscious efforts to reduce the amount of plastic they consume from the dining halls. Jessie Cheung, DC ’24, “use[s her] own water bottle and utensils” instead of taking a new plastic set for each meal. Bulldog Sustainability, a group of student athletes dedicated to environmental awareness, is also striving to counteract Yale’s increased waste production. In an infographic, they laid out which dining materials can be recycled, like plastic food containers and cans, and which have to be thrown away, like coffee cups and napkins. 

Our nation’s recycling system is itself inconsistent and unreliable. Even if your cans and plastic bottles are headed to a recycling center instead of a landfill or incinerator, their being recycled is far from guaranteed. A single dirty container or nonrecyclable item can be enough for the sorters to deem the bin grossly contaminated.” It’s unclear which items can and cannot be recycled; the rules change from city to city. Information from one source might not apply to your neighborhood. Even items that seem intuitively recyclable may belong in the landfills instead. 

It would be easy to interpret this information as a sign of the inefficacy of recycling in the first place. There doesn’t seem to be a reason to separate trash from recyclables when in all likelihood they will end up in the same place. However, if we just shrug our shoulders and throw away our bottles and cans, they have no chance of being repurposed. Recycling with only a chance of success is still better than not recycling at all. 

Fortunately, there are a few things inherent to the circumstances created by the pandemic that have improved environmental conditions. For example, quarantine has us stuck in one place a lot of the time, which cuts down on gas miles that would otherwise be spent commuting to work, school, or other travel. At the same time, the prevalence of single-use plastic—from masks and personal protective equipment to take-out utensils—is peaking.

This is a promising start, but there is always more to be done. If you’re on campus, advocate for your residential college to start a composting program. Push for Yale Hospitality to adopt compostable containers and utensils instead of plastic ones. And while the weather is still bearable, study outside. Spending time outdoors is good for mental health and saves electricity—if you remember to switch off your lights.

Change starts with us, but that change needs to combine personal sustainability and condemnation of the major perpetrators.

While we take measures to reduce our individual carbon footprints, it’s important to remember that corporations are rolling over our footprints with tank treads. The term “carbon footprint” itself was popularized by BP to shift environmental responsibility away from corporations and onto the individual consumer. It’s no surprise that corporations want to hide the extent of their environmental impact; 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of all global emissions since 1988, according to a 2017 study by the Carbon Disclosure Project. Every company on the list produces energy, primarily coal and oil. The energy source your town uses is out of your personal control. If you live in a coal-powered town, you lead a coal-powered life—your electric car is a coal-powered car. It is much easier, however, to control your consumption of products made by companies with high plastic waste production. The biggest offenders are brands found in any store or vending machine—Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Nestle. Minimizing your consumption from companies like these is a small but viable step towards sustainability.

Change starts with us, but that change needs to combine personal sustainability and condemnation of the major perpetrators. The obligation to protect the environment should not be shifted entirely onto the student body. Yale and other large corporations have a responsibility to adopt strategies that maintain health and safety, without letting sustainability fall by the wayside.

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