COVID-19 pandemic causes massive pile-up of single-use plastics, through restaurant takeout and PPE

CHICAGO (WLS) -- A joint investigation between the ABC7 I-Team and Chicago Sun-Times found how the higher demand for carryout food during the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more plastic waste, just as the city of Chicago was beginning to make strides in waste reduction.

As the pandemic keeps people out of restaurants, consumers are relying on mobile orders and carry out.

The International Solid Waste Association estimates consumption of single-use plastic may have grown 250% to 300% in America since the coronavirus pandemic began.

The I-Team partnered with Chicago Sun-Times Consumer Investigator Stephanie Zimmermann for a socially- distanced picnic.

They ordered food on several apps, and with the orders came plenty of plastics. How long will they last?

"Probably last at least a century, maybe longer a century. It's hard to say," said Jennifer Dunn, associate director of the Center for Engineering Sustainability and Resilience at Northwestern University.

Dunn said the items of biggest concern are plastic utensils, which aren't recyclable, and an abundance of polystyrene, commonly referred to by the brand name Styrofoam.

"Well Styrofoam really is not recyclable," she said. "You throw it in the recycling stream it can contaminate. It makes it harder to recycle other types of plastics."

You can reduce waste by checking with your city, town or village to see what kind of to-go containers are able to be recycled.

"We actually now globally have about 24 Willis Towers where the plastic and global landfills, so plastic waste is a big problem," Dunn said.

You can also ask restaurants to not give you plastic utensils and avoid overordering.

Dunn's students recently conducted a study related to the rise in carry out food. The study found overall pollution can be combatted by walking to get food, or using a delivery service which is making multiple stops instead of picking up a meal yourself.

"So the most interesting takeaway we got is that transportation is by far the, the factor that contributes the most greenhouse emissions," said Kavi Chintam, a graduate student at Northwestern who worked on the study.

But the rise in pandemic plastic use also includes Personal Protective Equipment like masks, gloves and some gowns. Many of these items which can't be recycled. Then add in the increase in plastic bags, because many stores may not allow reusable bags due to virus concerns.

"The plastic pollution crisis has been growing for several decades, and it has only been magnified by the pandemic," said Jaclyn Wegner, director of conservation action at the Shedd Aquarium. "It's estimated that each American throws away about 270 pounds of plastic every year. And if we're lucky only around 9% of that is recycled."

Wegner and the Shedd Aquarium launched a program to help restaurants and businesses cut down on plastic use and find affordable, compostable packaging.

"So food packaging does often end up in the Chicago River and in Lake Michigan and into our oceans, and it can break down into smaller pieces over time, but then might look like a wild animal like a fish or a bird," she explained. "It can kind of make them think that they should eat it and so what happens as an animal consumes plastic is their stomach will fill up making them think that they're full, but they haven't actually got any gotten any nutrients , so they can starve to death."

"Science has known for decades that plastic is a safe, hygienic material that helps doctors and nurses save lives," said the Plastics Industry Association.

The association also said it's an affordable way to preserve food and medicine, and added that "plastics companies are leading recycling and sustainability efforts."

"We do offer plastic utensils and Styrofoam plates and that sort of thing. People question. We try only to do it upon request," said Sandro Boglio of Gianna's Pizzeria. "We feel it would be wasteful just automatically included with every, every carry out order, so usually upon request."

The owner of the Chatham pizzeria said they're reducing waste and using pizza boxes made of recycled material. However, eliminating single use plastics is not an easy task.

"There are some alternatives. I would say there's still a little pricey and still difficult to get supply chains a little bit difficult with some of these items, not all suppliers, carry a full line or it is expensive," Boglio said.

A proposed ordinance by City of Chicago is on hold. It could one day ban polystyrene, and would require recyclable and compostable containers for all to-go orders.

The group Environment Illinois has been a supporter of the proposal and said it could eventually save restaurants money.

"So, long term we want to be using reusable options so that we are not producing as much waste," said Paloma Paez-Coombe, campaign associate at Environment Illinois. "And that means that you know restaurant owners won't have to purchase the things over and over again, and it will actually be cheaper because they are using reusable options."

The president of the Illinois Restaurant Association said it supports efforts for restaurants to voluntarily decrease their environmental footprint, as the industry has been "decimated" by COVID-19. He added that any proposed regulations could raise costs for operators and consumers.

Click here to read the full Sun Times report
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