In the first days of COVID-19, no one knew quite how the virus spread. The prospect of surface transmission led cafes and restaurants to suspend a growing number of reusable container programs, which were created to reduce how much one-time-use packaging ended up in the trash.
Now, as the panic wanes, a group of takeout food companies and logistics partners are once again trying to reduce waste in New York by encouraging or at least accepting reusable containers for coffee or sandwiches — and discovering renewed interest in their environmental goals. While most are focused on environmental impacts, others have a more immediate motivation: not running through their stash of disposable packaging before the disrupted supply chain can replenish their stores.
"At this time last year no one wanted to listen" to his pitch about reusables, said Michael Cyr, the co-founder of Cup Zero, which acts like Citi Bike for washable mugs at city coffee shops. "By February of this year, people said. 'Yeah, maybe.' Now COVID doesn't come up at all."
Americans used and disposed of 1.4 million tons of paper cups and plates and an additional 1 million tons of plastic foodservice containers, according to Environmental Protection Agency data. That figure is from 2018, the most recent year for which data is available. COVID-19 increased delivery orders by as much as 69 percent, a study from Columbia Business School found. That turned meals that would have been eaten at a restaurant on washable ceramic plates into delivery food packaged in a lot of paper and plastic.
Together, paper and plastic food packages accounted for around 1 percent of all materials and waste generation in 2018. But the mass of waste does not describe the full problem: The production and disposal of plastic was expected to add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in 2019, the same as the emissions from nearly 200 large coal power plants, said the Center for International Environmental Law, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group.
To address the issue, a global shift toward reusables had been underway before the pandemic shutdowns.