These tips can help you reduce your footprint during the pandemic. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

Reducing plastic waste is harder during the pandemic than it was before COVID-19 came to Maine. Even though the Centers for Disease Control has not yet documented transmission of the coronavirus from surfaces, individual businesses have taken precautions to reduce the surfaces that multiple people touch by nixing things like reusable bags and bulk bins in order to prevent cross contamination from unsanitized surfaces.

According to Matt Grondin, communications manager at ecomaine, a Portland-based nonprofit waste management organization, commercial waste was down 13 percent and residential waste was up 6 percent in April and May combined in ecomaine communities. Meanwhile, recycling and municipal waste services in the United States and beyond have been significantly limited due to the coronavirus keeping staff at home.

Despite this, Plastic Free July, an annual initiative of the Plastic Free Foundation that challenges people to reduce or eliminate single use plastics in their daily lives, is right around the corner. Their 2019 annual report estimates that last year, 250 million people participated in Plastic Free July last year, and 825 million kilograms of plastic waste were avoided due to the efforts.

Those numbers may be difficult to replicate this year, but it shouldn’t stop people from trying. Here are some ways you can reduce your plastic use despite the restrictions put in place by the pandemic during Plastic Free July and beyond.

Wear a reusable cloth mask

Increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE), particularly disposable face masks, according to outlets like The Guardian and The LA Times, has impacted the amount of plastic in the waste stream.

“There are some areas of society that need these single use items, like hospitals. Hospitals do a good job containing their waste, but the general public doesn’t,” said Daniel Dixon, director of the Office of Sustainability and research assistant professor of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

Save the disposable PPE for hospitals and use a reusable cloth mask instead.

“Maine is fortunate to have a great community of crafters,” Grondin said. “You can find your own cloth mask or even make your own.”

Make sure you are properly cleaning and storing your reusable mask as well.

Bag your own groceries

Since the pandemic started, many grocery stores and other businesses have banned the use of reusable bags. The precaution may be misguided, though. Results of an experiment recently published in The New England Journal of Medicine indicate that the coronavirus might actually persist longer on plastics than on other materials like cardboard.

“I’m concerned about the bad reputation that reusable bags are getting,” said Sarah Nichols, director of the Sustainable Maine project at the Natural Resources Council of Maine (NRCM). “I understand the overabundance of caution, but the science doesn’t really support that single use plastic is safer than reusable materials.”

Some grocery stores have started allowing customers to bring reusable bags if they are willing to bag their own items. If your favorite grocery store stands firm on their reusable bag ban, keep purchased items loose in your cart and bag them once you get to your car.

“Take it out to the car and bag it yourself out in the parking lot,” Dixon said. “I think there are some grocery stores that are allowing that as an option, and that’s going to be your best option. Then you don’t even need a bag, throw it all loose in the trunk.”

If you have to use plastic bags when grocery shopping, make sure you find ways to reuse them — for example, as trash bin liners. Grondin said you can also ask for paper bags.

Know what’s recyclable in your area

Check the recycling regulations in your area to help choose packaging that can be recycled.

For example, Nichols said that if you are choosing between lettuce wrapped in plastic film or one in a plastic box, you probably want to choose the latter. More recycling centers are equipped to process those kinds of plastics.

“Film plastics don’t go into the recycling stream. There are some things that are technically recyclable, but if there is not a market, they don’t get recycled,” Nichols said.

In order to find out what is recyclable where you live, Maine State Rep. Nicole Grohoski said to contact your town office, which will have information available.

Buy local

Shopping at your local farmers market will help to reduce the amount of plastic in your biweekly grocery shopping.

“They usually have less packaging because their transportation to the point of sale is more streamlined and it’s a great way to support the local community,” Grohoski said. “A lot of those markets are outdoors [and] following really good guidelines for safety.”

If you are buying meat, consider going to your local butcher and asking them to wrap your meat in wax paper instead of plastic.

“If you have a butcher in your neighborhood or your community who will do that, that’s a great option, [but] it’s a question probably of accessibility for some of us,” Grondin said.

Likewise, skipping the online shopping can help too.

“This whole online buying culture is becoming extremely wasteful,” Dixon said. “Even if your purchase arrives in a cardboard box, it still usually has packaging inside and these air filled bubbles, even though they say recyclable on them. They’re only recyclable at certain places, and those places in this part of the world are few and far between.”

Say no to single-use plastic at restaurants

Though some restaurants have opened their doors to in-house dining, the pandemic has more customers ordering takeout than usual. If you are getting takeout, make sure to request upfront that the restaurant does not give you more disposable materials than you need.

“Certain restaurants for instance will ask you if you need plastic silverware and others are just assuming you need it,” Grohoski said. “I’ve been trying to say, ‘I don’t need that stuff, I’m just taking it to my house.’”

Many cafes and restaurants are also no longer accepting reusable containers for takeout drinks. However, you can still bring your own straw if you are looking to cut back on plastic waste.

Refuse balloons

Nichols said that she has been seeing significantly more car parades as Mainers look for ways to celebrate their birthdays during the pandemic. Revellers should be more conscious not only of littering, but of one decoration in particular: balloons.

“I wish that people would be a little bit more careful, particularly with the balloons because they fly away and you can’t retrieve them,” she said. “They don’t biodegrade regardless of what the manufacturer says.”

She said she has also seen organized balloon releases to honor loved ones that have died.

“It’s not a good way to honor loved ones by killing birds and other creatures who eat the balloons,” Nichols said. “There’s that saying, ‘balloons don’t send messages to heaven, they send wildlife.’”

For car parades, Nichols recommended replacing balloons with bubbles, which can be produced easily and plentifully by holding wands out of the window of slow-moving cars. To honor loved ones, consider biodegradable paper lanterns, or perhaps floating flower petals down a river.

Conduct a trash audit

Even if you are struggling to be totally plastic-free this July, Grondin said that this is a time when you can do a waste audit and see what you are throwing away so you can be better in the years to come.

“Anybody can dump out a trash can at their house to see what’s plastic, what could have been recycled, what could have been composted,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be out of the pandemic next July, and be able to do a little bit better next time.”

ecomaine even has a video tutorial on YouTube on how to conduct a waste audit.

Ultimately, though, Grohoski said not to beat yourself up if you aren’t perfect about reducing plastic waste during the pandemic.

“This pandemic has been very interesting because some people have more time to contemplate these things and some people have less time. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t do these things or if you slip off,” Grohoski said.