Plastic pollution has been an environmental problem for decades. However, the Novel Coronavirus pandemic has caused a massive surge in the volumes of plastic waste generated. Reportedly, about 50% of all plastic is used only once and then discarded to land in canals, rivers, and oceans. Some of it goes to landfills, but wherever it lands, plastic takes centuries to decompose. Each year Americans produce over 233 pounds per person, of which only about 20% goes for recycling.
Plastic pollution — a global enemy
Although plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, it never goes away. A vast amount of it lands in our oceans where it entangles and often kills sea life. An image of a sea turtle with a drinking straw up its nose went viral on the internet. Countries, local governments and companies promised to take steps to reduce plastic use. Stores started charging for plastic carrier bags and encouraged consumers to bring their own cloth bags.
New York passed a ban on plastic carrier bags to start in May. However, before it could become effective, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant increase in single-use plastics. France is the only country to order a ban on single-use plastic cutlery as of January 2020.
The impact of COVID-19 on plastic pollution
The pandemic caused a change in priorities, and the use of more single-use plastics surged. The fear of spreading the Novel Coronavirus caused a new ban on personal cloth shopping bags in many stores. Take-outs increased during the lockdown, causing a massive increase in consumers’ collections of plastic utensils and polystyrene containers. Therefore, New York and several other states put their bans on plastic on the back burner.
Drawers of shame
A survey shows that the number of take-outs in May was 26% more than in March. In addition, it shows that 44% of adults nationwide used take-outs and food delivery services in May. As a result, almost every American household has a drawer of shame, filled with plastic cutlery and sauce sachets.
Can the nudge theory limit plastic pollution?
Advocates for change suggest the nudge theory may resolve this issue. This will change the default by which restaurants assume that every customer needs plastic cutlery. Instead, they must make it optional and ask customers whether they need plastics with their orders. Encouraging consumers to make that decision might create awareness of the plastic pollution problem. After all, during the quarantine, most people eat their take-outs at home, using their own cutlery.
A behavioral economist says food delivery services can use the same nudging. Their apps can include the facility for clients to choose whether they need plasticware with their orders. He says Grubhub has almost 24million active diners. If only 50% of those diners decline plasticware, about 12 million utensil sets will not land in kitchen drawers.
Nudging could form part of the new normal
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways. Every restaurant that does not provide plastic utensils by default will contribute to the worldwide effort to prevent climate change. Similarly, each consumer who says “no thanks” for plasticware will support the nudge theory.